Thursday, June 11, 2015


Danielle A. Layne, Harold Tarrant (ed.), The Neoplatonic Socrates. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Pp. vi, 256. ISBN 9780812246292. $75.00.

Reviewed by Giannis Stamatellos, The American College of Greece (

Version at BMCR home site


This volume, edited by Danielle A. Layne and Harold Tarrant, presents a collection of papers on the reception of Socrates in the philosophy of late antiquity, with reference in particular to the prominent later Neoplatonists Iamblichus, Hermias, Proclus, Olympiodorus and Simplicius. In considering the continuous interest of modern scholars in the question of the historical Socrates, especially after Gregory Vlastos' work in the early '90s, and reconsidering the apparent downgrading of Plato's protagonist in early Neoplatonists such as Plotinus and Porphyry, the aim of the volume is to tackle the idea that "the Neoplatonists neglected the Socratic element of Plato's dialogues" (p. 6).

After an informative introduction on the Socratic problem in modern scholarship, as well as a brief exposition of the aims and the objectives of the volume as a whole, the book is divided into ten chapters written by acknowledged scholars on key topics of the Platonic tradition.

Geert Roskam in his "Socratic Love in Neoplatonism" (Chapter 1) focuses on Hermias' Commentary on Plato's Phaedrus and examines the elevating power of Socratic eros as well as the image of Socrates as a divinely inspired teacher. Roskam shows that Socrates is depicted in Hermias as an ideal teacher who aims to elevate the soul to the intelligible world, beyond the corporeal world of sensible pleasures. The commonly-held view of Socrates as a moral teacher who brought philosophy down from heaven to the city is challenged here, and Roskam concludes that Socrates for Hermias is a contemplative philosopher who stresses the need for ascent to the divine and consequent purification. This stimulating interpretation of Socrates merits further study in this context.

John Finamore in his "Plutarch and Apuleius on Socrates' Daimonion" (Chapter 2) offers an enlightening and systematic analysis of Platonic demonology, eschatology and psychology in Plutarch and Apuleius. He evaluates the different interpretations of the Socratic daimonion in the Middle Platonic tradition and in terms of the different perspectives that the philosophers had on this issue. This is particularly striking in Apuleius' De Deo Socratis and Plutarch's De Genio Socratis. Finamore persuasively argues that the daimonion of Socrates is used to serve the interpretative purposes of these authors: whereas Apuleius emphasizes the supernatural nature of Socrates' daimonion and the hierarchy of daimons with respect to his own interpretation of the soul, Plutarch remains closer to the nature of the daimonion of Socrates per se and the analysis of its character.

Socrates' daimonion is also the topic of the next contribution, that by Crystal Addey in "The Daimonion of Socrates: Daimones and Divination in Neoplatonism" (Chapter 3). By focusing on Proclus' Commentary on the First Alcibiades, Addey opens up an influential discussion of the Socratic daimonion that challenges modern interpretations of Socrates' persona as (merely) a rational and moral thinker. It is convincingly argued that Socrates' character embodies both rational and divinely-inspired elements which compose the excellence of the wise. The occurrence of the daimonion-voice is a sign of the kairos, as Proclus suggests, a moment of self- knowledge revealing the excellence of the wise man purified through the elenchus of his own soul.

Socrates' pedagogical mission, along with his importance as a divinely inspired teacher, is the topic of Christina- Panagiota Manolea's "Socrates in the Neoplatonic Psychology of Hermias" (Chapter 4). Manolea selects a number of passages from Hermias' in Phaedrum (a commentary derived from a series of lectures by Hermias' master Syrianus) in which Socrates is portrayed as a contemplative teacher with a divine mission, able to lead the human soul to the higher intelligible world. She concludes from them that the Neoplatonic portrait of Socrates in Hermias is in accordance with the metaphysical and psychological teaching of the Athenian School, particularly in the period of Syrianus and Proclus.

Danielle Layne in "The Character of Socrates and the Good of Dialogue Form: Neoplatonic Hermeneutics" (Chapter 5) proposes that in order to understand the figure of Socrates in Neoplatonism we must first investigate the use and interpretation of Plato's dialogue form by the Neoplatonists. It is maintained that later Neoplatonists such as Proclus considered Plato's dialogues as unified organic wholes with complex and divergent ends which the reader needs to recognize in order to achieve "the Good of the text" and the ultimate purification of the human soul. Layne concludes, in response to some contemporary trends of Platonic scholarship, that for the late Neoplatonists Plato's dialogues were not just beautiful texts on abstract issues of metaphysics but "the dialogue was like the cosmos, a living organism, an individual like Socrates, compelling us in all parts of the Good" (p. 96).

Socrates as a dynamic pedagogical symbol in Plato's dialogues is discussed in Michael Griffin's "Hypostasizing Socrates" (Chapter 6). In the light of Iamblichus' Platonic curriculum and its later use in Neoplatonic commentators such as Proclus and Olympiodorus, Griffin shows that, whereas Plato's protagonist plays different roles in the dialogues, Socrates consistently and uniformly symbolizes both knowledge and being throughout the hypostases. Socrates is a model for imitation that the reader is urged to bear in mind as he progresses in the curriculum from the study of political virtue in Alcibiades I and Gorgias to the "complete" dialogues of Timaeus and Parmenides. For Iamblichus and his successors, as Griffin argues, Socrates is not just a literary device in Plato's dialogues but more importantly a paradigm of pedagogical intuition and mimēsis that we have to contemplate and follow in our own philosophical bios.

This representation of Socrates as a figure of paradigmatic pedagogy along with being an embodiment of divine eros is the subject of James M. Ambury's "Socratic Character: Proclus on the Function of Erotic Intellect" (Chapter 7). Ambury focuses on Proclus' Commentary on the First Alcibiades of Plato and argues that Socrates is presented here not just as an intellectualist but also as an erotic figure that strives to bring the soul of the beloved to the good life and raise it to the higher intelligible realm. For Proclus, Socrates is both the embodiment of the erotic intellect and an image of the divine lover who inspires the philosophos, as the true lover of wisdom, both to self-knowledge and to the knowledge of divine and intelligible being.

The role of Socratic elenchus in Olympiodorus' Commentary of Alcibiades I is the main topic of François Renaud's contribution, "The Elenctic Strategies of Socrates: The Alcibiades I and the Commentary of Olympiodorus" (Chapter 8). Renaud highlights the importance of Olympiodorus' commentaries on the so-called "investigative" or "Socratic" dialogues, Alcibiades and Gorgias, and interprets Olympiodorus' discussion of the Socratic method in intellectual and purgative terms. He concludes that Olympiodorus' exegesis of the Socratic elenchus involves not only moral and dialectic aspects but also pedagogic, rhetorical and erotic elements that aim at a "second-level maieutic" directed to the reader, who is asked to consider the dialogue beyond its argumentative use, recognizing also the purificatory value of the wisdom of the text.

Marilynn Lawrence in her essay "Akrasia and Enkrateia in Simplicius' Commentary on Epictetus' Encheiridion" (Chapter 9) deals with a major issue of Socratic teaching: the denial of acratic action. In her exposition of the arguments that follow Socrates' position she moves from Aristotle's original criticism to Epictetus' and Plotinus' discussion of self-control (enkrateia) and the knowledge of the good as it is identified with virtue. Then the aim of Simplicius in his commentary on Epictetus' Encheiridion is discussed as a reconciliation of these views in terms of Socrates' excellence. The denial of akrasia is possible only for the paradigmatic souls of the wise, such as that of the "divine Socrates"; the virtuous soul alone desires what is reasonable, while the desire of "ordinary people" is often based on irrational emotions. From this perspective Simplicius and Epictetus both emphasize the importance of philosophical education.

Lastly, Harold Tarrant, in his paper "The Many-Voiced Socrates: Neoplatonist Sensitivity to Socrates' Change of Register" (Chapter 10), examines the position of the Neoplatonists regarding the plurality of Socrates' styles of speaking in Plato's dialogues. Tarrant challenges the commonly held contemporary view that the Neoplatonists differentiate Socrates from Plato, and, more importantly, that they consider Socrates as inferior to his "divine" pupil. Through the use of multivariate computer analysis of selective recurrent vocabulary in the Platonic dialogues, Tarrant concludes that the Neoplatonists distinguish different ways in which Plato uses Socrates. Notably, what seems to attract their special attention is that whenever Socrates changes voice as a "new persona" or in a "new register", this change reflects both the godlike inspiration in Socrates' speech and the sense of divine mission that, according to the Neoplatonists, prevails in all the dialogues. From a reading of the dialogues as a complete and uniform whole, the many-voiced Socrates is not contradictory but provides an inspiration for the soul through divergent paths to self-knowledge and truth.

In addition to the individual contributions, the volume as a whole includes a very useful appendix on the reception of Socrates in late antiquity, with a list of authors and primary texts dealing with the most important references to Socrates in the writers of this period, from Plutarch of Chaeronea to Damascius and the anonymous Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy. The volume is completed with a bibliography, a general index and an index locorum.

Overall, this volume is an invaluable contribution to Neoplatonic studies. Through the eyes of later Neoplatonists and in an appropriate scholarly and rigorous manner, it reconsiders and frequently challenges current trends in the study of the Socratic problem and the role of Socrates in the Platonic tradition. Despite the fact that the volume is centered on later Neoplatonic thinkers, the various essays also encourage a re-examination of the reception of Socrates in Middle Platonists and early Neoplatonists such as Plutarch, Plotinus and Porphyry, and they may well trigger a rethinking of our own image of Socrates.

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