Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.06.11

Nalin Ranasinghe, The Soul of Socrates.   Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 2000.  Pp. 196.  ISBN 0-8014-3746-6.  $39.95.  

Reviewed by Michael Pakaluk, Philosophy, Clark University (
Word count: 1462 words

This is a collection of four essays on Plato's Republic, Protagoras, Phaedo, and Symposium. Each essay walks the reader through an entire dialogue, attempting to give an interpretation of the whole, in what might be deemed a 'Straussian' manner. They seem not to be connected by any unifying thesis. The author's concern in the Republic essay, for instance, is to clear Plato of the charge of being an enemy of freedom, by maintaining that the dialogue is meant to be a kind of spiritual workout for prospective disciples of Socrates. His view of the Phaedo, in contrast, is that it concerns immortality only in the sense that the reader is supposed to 'liberate' the 'soul' of Socrates from the dialogue, by interpreting the dialogue in a 'living' and subtle sense, instead of the dead, literal sense, so that thereby Socrates lives on in our minds and hearts.

Ranasinghe maintains that his single aim throughout is to reveal to the reader Socrates as a living figure who makes a claim on us today and is capable of waking up slumbering souls to the demands of philosophy: "For ourselves, we must find comfort in the power of the living presence of Socrates to animate philosophical discourse, and to resurrect dead souls, twenty-four centuries after his death" (178). Ranasinghe himself is evidently passionately engaged with the Socrates he has encountered in Plato's dialogues, and he sees his task as bringing his reader into a similar relation with this figure who, as the author insists, was an actual thinker at a particular place and time: "Emphasizing the human reality of Socrates is crucial" (x). He likens this, as was said, to liberating the soul of Socrates from the apparently dead corpus of Plato's works, and hence the title of his book.

As praiseworthy as these goals are, one needs to consider what it is about Socrates that makes it so important for us to encounter him, and what means are best employed to produce the right sort of encounter. For Ranasinghe, Socrates is worth encountering because he is both 'erotic' and enigmatic. "We can best revitalize the dialogues," Ranasinghe maintains, "by paying closer attention to their erotic contexts" (xiii). This idea gets repeated throughout the book. Yet we are never told quite what Socrates' eroticism is. It's some kind of attraction, surely, and to pay attention to Socrates as 'erotic' then implies taking into account, at least, how we are drawn to him. But, obviously, this does not say anything about why it is worthwhile being drawn to him. Similarly, it's not a recommendation of someone that he is 'enigmatic': "Socrates was surely the most enigmatic of all men" (ix). I suppose someone might be enigmatically bad or shiftless as much as enigmatically good. Yet it's not even clear that Socrates was all that enigmatic -- as portrayed by Plato, aren't his purposes in most cases perfectly lucid? -- and it hardly seems a sound principle of interpretation, as Ranasinghe seems to suppose, that Socrates should come out looking as enigmatic as possible.

The means Ranasinghe proposes for effecting this new encounter with Socrates are themselves hardly novel. For instance: "I suggest that far from being a summation of Plato's deepest thoughts on the art of ruling, the Republic is a labyrinthine process of pedagogy that tests the reader's reason and desires to the utmost. In other words, the form and content of a dialogue are not at variance" (2). Elsewhere, after complaining that "many analytic philosophers ... refuse to pay serious attention to the dramatic context in which the dialogues take place or to acknowledge the peculiar nature of Platonic writing" (x) -- which surely is not true of any noteworthy interpreter of Plato today, 'analytic' or otherwise -- and after attempting also to distance himself from 'another school', presumably the Straussians, which "believes texts are written to reveal more to the careful and educated reader" (xi), Ranasinghe says that his own approach is "to derive a more positive view of the human condition from the erotic vantage [sic] of the earlier dialogues" (xi). This is obscure, but in any case Ranasinghe fails to distinguish his own methods of interpreting Plato from those typical of an unfortunate variety of Straussianism.

By this I mean that Ranasinghe, first of all, neglects entirely the arguments of the dialogues: in the almost 200 pages of his book, not a single sentence is devoted to the statement, elucidation, or critical consideration of any line of reasoning that Plato has Socrates propound. He supposes that his own free association, inspired by a chance detail or word in the text, is a good guide to Plato's thoughts and intentions. And he most typically, even predictably, takes the text to mean the opposite of what it says. To take Socrates to mean what he says is dull and stupid; to take him to mean the opposite of what he says is subtle and profound.

Not surprisingly, such an approach frequently leads to ludicrous results. The arguments of the Phaedo are of course fallacious in Ranasinghe's view, and they are meant to be so by Plato: "To read the four arguments as 'proofs' is to ignore the spirit of a Socratic dialogue and condemn ourselves to remain in Hades" (99). (But there are five arguments in the Phaedo, not merely four: Ranasinghe, without argument or explanation, fails to count the Affinity Argument as an argument.) More than this, he maintains that each argument is "a photographic negative or shadow of the truth". Thus the first argument, the Cyclical Argument, which ostensibly argues that the soul's animation of the body is only the visible half of a cyclical process of the sort found typically thoughout nature -- this argument, according the Ranasinghe, "serve[s] to draw attention to the soul's having no part in nature's cycles of generation and corruption"! The Argument from Recollection in fact "reminded us that the soul's preexistence does not need to be postulated to explain the soul's ability to see archetypes". The refutation of Simmias' harmony theory in fact establishes in reality that the soul is a kind of harmony. And the fourth argument, the Final Argument, shows us, according to Ranasinghe, that "The soul's capacity for virtue is realized through its existential harmonizing of the various transcendental moral imperatives" (93). This last conclusion should be a relief to those interpreters of the Final Argument who supposed it contains difficult or tricky logical considerations involving essences and causation.

The book, as I said, is filled with Ranasinghe's free associations on details of the text. Here is one of the more striking improvisations of that sort. The name Phaedon, Ranasinghe tells us, if pronounced with a lisp, would sound like Phaethon. Hence, "Plato doubtless means his readers to draw parallels" between the dialogue and the myth of Phaethon. The main parallel (according to Ranasinghe) is this: Phaedo is trying to establish that he is a disciple of Socrates, but Plato means to suggest that "Phaedo's ongoing attempt to establish his credentials [sic] as Socrates' beloved disciple was about as successful as Phaethon's career as a charioteer" (96). -- Yes, of course, that's perfectly evident. -- But the full story of Phaethon, Ranasinghe observes, is to be found in Ovid's Metamorphoses. So there we must turn, "in the hope that the Latin poet has given an accurate renedering". In Ovid, however, it is suggested that, because there are four directions in which Phaethon can go astray (up, down, right, left), there are four horses which Phaethon must control. These four horses, then, correspond to the four arguments of the Phaedo. Now it is because Phaethon fails to govern the four horses that his journey is a disaster. Thus, Ranasinghe concludes, what Plato intends us to observe is that Phaedo must "hold [these four arguments] in harmony rather than allowing them to run away with his reasoning" (97). All of this is of course obvious once it is pointed out.

We might depict this ingenious line of thought as follows:

Phaedo --> Phaethon --> Ovid --> four directions --> four horses --> four arguments --> Phaethon's failing to control four horses --> Phaedo's failing to hold four arguments in harmony. QED.

On nearly every page of this book the author discovers such unexpected connections.

It's difficult to read Ranasinghe without suspecting that he himself writes in the clever and subtle manner that he attributes to Plato. Ranasinghe gives no evidence for his views, to draw attention to how valuable evidence really is. He formulates no clear thesis, precisely to test the reader's mettle in seeking clarity through his own efforts. He makes use of free association, in order to show us, with clever irony, that logic and argument are superior to pseudo-Straussian word-play.

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