Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.06.43

Mark Moes, Plato's Dialogue Form and the Care of the Soul. New Perspectives in Philosophical Scholarship, 13.   New York:  Peter Lang, 2000.  Pp. 222.  ISBN 0-8204-4459-6.  EUR 45.40/sFr 76.00/$50.95.  

Reviewed by Gerald A. Press, Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center (
Word count: 1054 words

In this interesting monograph, Mark Moes (hereafter "M") opposes one of the main elements in the long-standard view of Plato, that the dialogues may be read as if they were essays or treatises in which Plato expounds his philosophical doctrines as Aristotle did in his lectures or Hume in his treatises. Instead, M argues that "in the dialogues Plato depicts his philosophic masters as carrying on and developing traditional practices of psychosomatic medicine" (xiv) and that, rather than teaching us doctrines, Plato intended the dialogues to provide a kind of therapy for the beliefs, practices, and lives of their readers.

The book consists of five chapters accompanied by a brief Preface (xi-xiv) and a Bibliography (209-22). In chapter 1, "The Problem of Plato's Dialogue Form," M presents a number of problems with what he calls, following Sayre, the "proto-essay view" of Plato's dialogues. Then he sketches different accounts of the significance of the dialogue form that avoid some of these criticisms as propounded by Gilbert Ryle, Kenneth Sayre, and Mitchell Miller. M believes that each of these proposals also has problems, but he finds in Stanley Rosen the undeveloped suggestion of another alternative view (originating with Strauss) that may be more satisfactory: that Plato uses a quasi-medical or psychiatric model in composing the dialogues. The rest of the book consists in the elaboration and defense of this view (Chapter 2), its instantiation in two dialogues (Chapters 3 and 4), and a Summary, Prospect, and Conclusion (Chapter 5).

Chapter 2, "The Analogy Between Philosophy and Medicine in Plato's Dialogues," begins by summarizing various forms of thought about "Disease and Cure in Ancient Greece," emphasizing that (following Lain Entralgo) from Homer on there was a logotherapeutic current of thought. This type of thinking is then discussed as it is found in Grg 461b-465e, Phdr 259e-274b, Phd 88c-91c, Tht 166a-179b, and, more briefly, passages in Meno, Rep, Charm, Plt, and Ep. 7. M claims that all of these passages, taken together, "provide strong support for the claim that Plato models philosophy on the practice of medicine" (46).

In the next section of Chapter 2, "Plato's Dialogues as Medicinal Rhetoric." M defines the medical or quasi-medical model by three theses: (1) "that Plato conceived the aim of philosophizing to be the achievement of a certain state of dynamic equilibrium in the soul, a state irreducible to any set of correct doctrines" (47); (2) the dialogues are on one level depictions of conversations that are like interactions between physicians and patients and on another level are case histories of typical maladies of soul and their attempted cures; (3) philosophers are depicted in the dialogues as diagnosing particular maladies of soul exemplified by non-philosophers and as providing therapeutic recommendations for these patients.

Chapters 3 and 4 argue that the psychiatric model helps to explain many otherwise disparate details and thus grasp the unity of two dialogues. Chapter 3, "Diagnosis and Cure in the Symposium," argues that with the psychiatric model in mind, we can see the Symposium as "a therapy within a therapy within a therapy" (112; emphasis in original). Diotima cures Socrates, who cures Agathon (and the other guests), Apollodorus attempts to cure his auditor just as Plato tries to cure us of misguided inclinations. Thus, M claims, "a more coherent account becomes available of how actions depicted in the dialogue fit together into a coherent whole than would be possible on any other view" (60).

M argues in chapter 4, "Diagnosis and Cure in the Philebus," that the dialogue "presents Philebus, Protarchus, and Socrates as personified powers or components of a typical self" (166). Socrates can be seen as "diagnosing and treating the disease of vulgar hedonism" (165) and the dialogue thus requires readers to learn some lessons about the well-ordered mixture of the limited and unlimited aspects of the world and their own souls. The dialogue "is intended to protect such readers from certain fundamental errors in thinking about the conduct of life and to prepare them for the task of intelligently participating in the conversation" (161).

Chapter 5, "Summary, Prospect, and Conclusion," suggests how the psychiatric model could have applications to Republic, Phaedrus, and Phaedo, which depict Socrates eliciting and treating the psychic disorders of Adeimantus, Phaedrus, Simmias and Cebes.

The core theory that there is a psychiatric model to be found in many of Plato's dialogues is both plausible and illuminating in many of the ways M argues. Readers will benefit from his clarity about the difference between what happens in a dialogue and what happens through it (e.g., 156). However, readers may also be troubled by some aspects of the volume. For one thing, it is much too brief (173 pp.) to do justice to the topic; for another, it is too much the dissertation in which it originated, with the redundancies and wordiness typical of that genre. Perhaps more seriously, the argument is too poor in its appreciation of how many and how different the alternatives to the proto-essay view are in recent scholarship. It seems somehow arbitrary to select just Ryle, Sayre, and Miller, while leaving out more literary alternatives such as those proposed by Rutherford and Arieti1 or the more complex "esoteric" doctrinal view offered by scholars such as Gaiser, Krämer, Szlezák, and even, recently, Miller.2 This may also reflect the problem of relevant scholarship that M seems to have missed. In a monograph dealing with "The Analogy between Philosophy and Medicine," M should surely have consulted the recent work of Mario Vegetti and that of Joel Lidz.3

Also, it may be exaggerated to claim that this "is" Plato's view of philosophy rather than that this is one of the ways Plato thought about and presented philosophy. Proving that the quasi-medical image is there doesn't prove that other images are not. The other images -- that philosophy is the art of arts, the science of sciences, the true rhetoric, or the highest music, for example -- are not dealt with and consequently no argument is given that the quasi-medical is more important than the others.

Nevertheless, for bringing our attention anew to the psychotherapeutic aspects of Plato's dialogues this is a useful volume that ought to find a place in research libraries and may serve to motivate new and detailed studies of the therapeutic, medical, and psychiatric aspects of all the dialogues.


1.   Richard B. Rutherford, The Art of Plato (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995). James A. Arieti, Interpreting Plato (Savage, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1991).
2.   Konrad Gaiser, Platons ungeschriebene Lehre. Studien zur systematischen und geschichtlichen Begründung der Wissenschaften in der platonischen Schule (Stuttgart: Klett, 1959). H.-J. Krämer, Arete bei Platon und Aristoteles. Zum Wesen und zur Geschichte der platonischen Ontologie (Heidelberg: Abhandlungen der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1959). Thomas A. Szlezák, Platon und die Schriflichkeit der Philosophie (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1985). Mitchell Miller, "The Choice between the Dialogues and the 'Unwritten Teachings': A Scylla and Charybdis for the Interpreter?" pp. 225-44 in Francisco Gonzalez, ed. The Third Way: A New Direction in Platonic Studies (Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995).
3.   Mario Vegetti, La medicina in Platone (1995), which brought together four articles originally published in the Rivista critica di storia della filosofia: (1965), 1-37; (1967), 251-70; (1968); (1969), 3-22. Joel Lidz, "Medicine as Metaphor in Plato," Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 20 (1995), 527-41.

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