Thursday, February 14, 2019


Coleen P. Zoller, Plato and the Body: Reconsidering Socratic Asceticism. SUNY series in ancient Greek philosophy. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2018. Pp. ix, 257. ISBN 9781438470818. $90.00.

Reviewed by Vicky Roupa, Open University in London and the South East, UK (

Version at BMCR home site


This book challenges a prevailing orthodoxy that Plato viewed embodiment as inimical to philosophical endeavor and preached an austere kind of asceticism as a prerequisite to true knowledge. Proposed by such philosophical heavy-weights as Plotinus and Nietzsche and espoused by a number of Plato scholars, this view ascribes to Plato a dualist way of thinking about the body according to which, if we are to have knowledge of things as they are, we need to disentangle ourselves from the trappings of the body both as to how we acquire knowledge and as to the moral choices we make. As Socrates forcefully puts it in the Phaedo: "in truth or in fact no thought of any kind ever comes to us from the body. Only the body and its desires cause war, civil discord and battles;" and a bit further down: "if we are ever to have pure knowledge, we must escape from the body and observe things in themselves with the soul by itself" (66c3-5, 66d5-e2). It is no wonder, then, that such a scathing statement has been widely taken to suggest a deep-seated suspicion of the body as the enemy of philosophy.

Zoller does not contest that Plato prioritized the soul over the body in all matters of philosophy. What she does contest is that Plato defended an "austere dualism" that prescribed a systematic and relentless suppression of bodily needs and desires as the essential philosophical comportment. Instead, she proposes that the dialogues be read under the heuristic device of what she calls, after Alison Jaggar, 'normative dualism' which, while ranking the care of the soul over and above that of the body, does so without loathing or neglecting the body and the physical world. Zoller develops her argument on two fronts: first, through a nuanced reading of dialogues including those, like the Phaedo, that have traditionally been read through the interpretative lens of austere dualism; and second, through careful consideration of a number of other dialogues, such as the Phaedrus, which reveal a more playful aspect to Socrates' personality, attuned to, and tolerant of, the needs and pleasures of the body. Zoller argues that a careful reading of the arguments at work in the dialogues as well as a thorough consideration of their context and intended audience provide strong evidence in favor of her suggested approach, which integrates the body in the philosopher's quest for knowledge. In fact, according to Zoller, the body has an important pedagogical role to play in philosophical practice as it provides the basis for a set of experiences, physical and erotic, that facilitate, rather than impede, the understanding of true reality.

Chapter 1 sets out the key concepts and arguments of the project and explains the stakes involved. Zoller argues that austere dualism's disdain of the body and the physical world has had unwelcome consequences in a range of areas, from the systematic abuse of nature to the denigration of women and non-Western, non-white peoples, who have been oppressed on the grounds that they are "closer" to nature, and thus, more "primitive" than men / whites. This unfortunate attitude is not, according to Zoller, supported from the dialogues, but instead obfuscates the tenor of the Platonic conception of the body. Plato's dialogues, argues Zoller, offer resources for a more respectful, more positive approach to the natural environment, as well as to women, reproduction, and non-white peoples.

In Chapter 2, Zoller focuses on the Phaedo with the aim of showing that austere dualism fails to offer convincing answers to two key epistemological issues, namely how we can obtain true knowledge (a) when sense perception is so unreliable, and (b) when the would-be philosopher is constantly distracted by the needs of the body. Traditionally, the dialogue has been read as an extended argument for the separation of the soul from the body, which, according to the austere dualist, the philosopher longs for throughout life. Zoller's re-reading of the dialogue aims to undermine this linchpin of austere dualism by highlighting three key aspects of Plato's argument: (a) the necessary role sense perception plays in the theory of recollection; (b) the prohibition against suicide; and (c) the exemplary role of Socrates who, though embodied, has not become a "body-lover" or someone who prioritizes non-essential, non-philosophical pursuits at the expense of rational enquiry. Crucially, Zoller offers reasons why Plato has Socrates propose extreme-sounding somatophobic views in the dialogue; the Phaedo, according to Zoller, has a dual pedagogical purpose: to reform the attitudes of the many – who are prone to valuing the body and its needs over and above the soul – and to establish a shared starting-point with the Pythagorean associates of Socrates, who themselves held somatophobic views. Despite this shared premise, Zoller argues, the Pythagoreans are in need of further philosophical guidance from Socrates, and are therefore more likely to lend an ear to his arguments if they see him as "one of their own". Plato, then, makes specific authorial choices in the Phaedo to promote his strategic and pedagogical aims, and these need to be kept firmly in mind when considering the arguments in the dialogue.

In Chapter 3 Zoller turns her attention to a very different pair of dialogues, the Phaedrus and the Symposium, which, in making erôs their primary focus, have long been seen as an antidote to the Phaedo's fascination with death. Understood as desexualized love by proponents of austere dualism, erôs plays a central but ambiguous role in Plato's account of philosophical practice. On the one hand, philosophy itself is designated as a form of 'erotic pursuit' (59); on the other, Plato warns against succumbing to sexual desire, thus appearing to reinforce austere dualism. A careful reading of the dialogues however, argues Zoller, does not bear out the claims of austere dualists. Not only did the exemplary philosopher Socrates engage in sexual activity in the context of marriage – as evidenced by the fact that he had young children at the time of his death – moreover erôs as sexualized, not fully idealized, love, plays an important role in philosophical practice. Key to understanding the ambiguous nature of erôs is, according to Zoller, that we properly construe Socrates' erotic rejection of Phaedrus and Alcibiades. Although both men actively pursue Socrates' favors, and, importantly, even though Socrates himself is not immune to their charms, it would be unworthy of a philosopher to rush headlong into an association that does not fulfil the requirements of the rational enquirer. Should these requirements be met, however, the sexual consummation of the erotic bond is not ruled out. In fact, the erotic pursuit provides a privileged pathway towards knowledge of the Forms as it can cause the pursuer to experience a transformation of the erotic object from physical (the tangible beauty of a particular boy) to non-physical (psychic beauty), and, finally, to fully intelligible (the Form of Beauty). Zoller shows in this way that the intelligible world becomes more readily accessible to humans through the agency of erotic love, thus buttressing her restatement of the role of the body as essential to philosophy.

Chapter 4 focuses on Plato's attitude towards the body in the context of social and political life. Zoller's normative dualist interpretation is here applied to a variety of themes closely linked with the care of the self (a) as health, and (b) as harmony between various conflicting parts. She also examines austere dualism's emphasis on the contemplative life over and above civic engagement. The key takeaway point from the Gorgias and the Republic, she argues, is that although the care of the soul receives Plato's foremost attention, the body is not neglected either, instead providing a wealth of source-images, metaphors, and analogies through which psychic moderation and self-control are broached. The issue of bodily needs is also an important one in Plato's social and political thought; take for example, the question of poverty which some interpreters argue Plato neglected, perhaps due to his own privileged upbringing. For Zoller, by contrast, poverty marks an important point of reference in Plato's understanding of the causes of war and much unhappiness in human affairs. Not only was Plato sensitive to the ills brought on by poverty, he was also attuned to the need for a moderate celebration of such healthy desires as food, drink and sex in the framework of a well-functioning community of rational beings.

In Chapter 5, Zoller makes some suggestions as to how the later dialogues, Timaeus, Philebus and the Laws could be read under the rubric of normative dualism. The book is concluded with a brief Epilogue where Zoller summarizes her main findings.

Written in a clear and accessible manner, Plato and the Body makes a convincing case for normative dualism as a consistent interpretive schema for the relation that obtains between body and soul in Plato. Zoller's interpretation has the merit of reconciling seemingly incongruous dialogues: on the one hand, the Phaedo, with its overarching themes of death and the separate soul, and on the other, the Phaedrus and the Symposium that celebrate erôs and earthly (as well as psychic) beauty. A close textual analysis that takes into account the original Greek complements the discussion of the arguments. I do have a worry about the comprehensiveness of Zoller's interpretive model: Zoller seems to me too keen to iron out the ambiguities present in the Platonic text concerning the body and what is associated with it – nature, pleasure, sense perception, and the physical realm. Take, for example, the issue of bodily pleasures in the Republic. An acceptable and even welcome element in certain political contexts (such as, for instance, in the first city as long as moderation and self-control predominate), the pursuit of pleasure that derives from the desiring part of the soul is viewed by Plato as a potentially disruptive political element that needs to be reined in by an external agency, i.e. the rational part of the soul, practically effectuated by the Guardians. The destabilizing nature of desire means that its psychic and political function is double-edged – a forever suspect and troublesome part of a conflictual structure that is itself always at risk of tipping over into civil discord. In metaphysical terms, a similar ambiguity has been expressed in the issue of chôrismos or ontological separation between the Forms and the physical beings that instantiate them. Zoller appears to think that these problems derive from an infelicitous choice of interpretation (austere dualism); it is possible, however, that the basic tenets of Platonic metaphysics involve aporiai that are not strictly resolvable within the system. Plato himself appears to have thought that the theory of Forms invites such aporiai, at least if we go by a certain interpretation of the Parmenides which sees the dialogue as a turning-point in Plato's metaphysical and epistemological thinking. Notwithstanding this, this book is an ambitious and worthwhile project to reshape the landscape of Plato studies regarding the body, and, as such, deserves to be read widely.

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