BMCR 2019.01.36

The Embodied Soul in Plato’s Later Thought

, The Embodied Soul in Plato’s Later Thought. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. x, 217. ISBN 9781107174122. £75.00.


“The Phaedo casts a long shadow” (1). These are the opening words of Chad Jorgenson’s aptly named book, and its ongoing and remarkably single-minded purpose is to delimit or dispel that shadow, primarily by contrasting “the rigid opposition between body and soul” in Phaedo (9) with what Jorgensen discovers in Timaeus and Philebus (3). As indicated by his titular focus on “Plato’s Later Thought,” Jorgenson—unlike many other Anglophone Plato scholars of his generation—embraces without apology or professed indifference a chronological approach to interpreting Plato’s dialogues. He assumes without argument that the character Timaeus speaks for Plato himself (56) no matter how “whimsical” his views may be (195) and that the unforgettably poetic Socrates of Phaedo is a less reliable spokesman for Plato’s views than the humorless Socrates we encounter in Philebus. It is on the strength of these unquestioned conceptions that Jorgenson aims to dispel the shadow of what he calls “residual Neoplatonism” and thus the Middle- and Neo-Platonists’ “strategy of reading Plato’s ethics in terms of the isolation and separation of the rational soul from the body” (2).

Jorgenson’s polished shadow boxing is not confined to contrasting “Plato’s Later Thought” with “the Phaedo and the later books of the Republic ” (2): he begins by showing how the tripartite soul of Republic 4 “goes beyond a simple binary opposition between reason and bodily desire” (8; cf. 11 with n. 11). Jorgenson therefore uses two different strategies in pursuit of the same end: the roots of what will later become manifest in Philebus and Timaeus can already be discerned in Protagoras (96-103), Symposium (112-17), and the early books of the Republic. It is here that he most clearly demonstrates the influence of his Doktorvater Filip Karfík (ix), whose Die Beseelung des Kosmos: Untersuchungen zur Kosmologie, Seelenlehre und Theologie in Platons Phaidon und Timaios (Leipzig / München, 2004) emphasizes the continuity between Phaedo and Timaeus. Leaving the more direct claim of continuity to Karfík, Jorgenson nevertheless continues his teacher’s project and, at a time when the interpretive value of “Plato’s Later Thought” has begun to loosen its grip on younger Anglophone scholars, it here receives a fresh infusion of life from the Continent.

Jorgenson’s book consists of seven chapters. He concludes his first (“ Thymos ”) with the claim that thymos “represents an extension of reason into the bodily realm” and that “as an intermediary between reason and appetite” it “points towards a more positive conception of bodily nature and signals a significant break with the metaphysical psychology of Phaedo ” (37-8). “The doctrinal peculiarities of the Phaedo ” (47; called “unusual and highly influential” at 42) are illustrated in the second chapter, “Appetitive Soul,” where Philebus (50-55) and Timaeus (55-9) emerge as decisive. At the start of the third chapter, “Rational Soul,” and with the purpose of calling into question “the complete identification of the individual with the rational soul and the concomitant purification of reason from the contaminating influence of the body and the lower parts of the soul,” Jorgenson lays out a roadmap for the next three chapters: “the rational soul as it is in itself [Chapter 3], as it exercises an influence over the lower parts of the soul, particularly the appetitive part [Chapter 4, “Measuring Pleasure”], and as the cause of happiness in the whole individual [Chapter 5, “ Eudaimonia ”]” (63). Chapter 6 points to “The Political Sphere” as further proof that “the ultimate goal of the philosophical life . . . is characterized by a broad intellectual engagement with Becoming and the active rule of reason over the lower parts of the soul” (141), while Chapter 7 (“Eschatology”) considers the eschatological myths in Gorgias (178-81), Phaedo (182-6), and Republic (186-90), with the purpose of showing that they only appear to be concerned with the disembodied soul because “the limits of these myths are the limits of the philosophical discourses in which they are embedded” (190).

Jorgenson’s last chapter is a tour de force: the discussion of “a wholly immanent eschatology” in Timaeus coheres nicely with his claim (“my broader argument”) that “in the late dialogues Plato ties the soul more closely to Becoming” (196-7). Indeed this is the capstone of the edifice Jorgenson has been building at least since the important “Godlikeness and the Cognition of Becoming” section of Chapter 3 (76-87). In the book’s most sustained bit of textual exegesis (79-82; see also 146-7), Jorgenson aligns the ὁμοίωσις θεῷ of Theaetetus 176b1 not with Phaedo and Republic 6 but with Philebus and especially Timaeus (80), where “we are exhorted to become godlike . . . through contemplation of the intrinsic rational order of the [visible] cosmos” (84-5; cf. 147). One of Jorgenson’s most interesting interpretive moves likewise emerges in this crucial section of Chapter 3 before reappearing in Chapter 6 and in the book’s brief Conclusion (201-3): while allowing that “the allegory of the cave” can be read “as an account of a metaphysical ascent from the realm of sensation and belief to that of intellect and knowledge” (78-9), he insists in an important note (79 n. 58) that “the polysemy of mythical discourse” opens the door to “other hermeneutical possibilities.” By the end, the interactive relationship between philosopher-king and city, imaged by the return to the cave, is used to contrast “the unidirectional flight of the Phaedo or Republic VII” with “a more multifaceted conception of the soul as a simultaneously ordered and ordering principle, stretching upwards, in the contemplation of the unique structuring principles of reality, and downwards, in the acquisition and exercise of the lower sciences bearing on Becoming” (202; cf. 61-2, 78-9, 145-6, and 152-4).

Contrasting Timaeus with Phaedo, Thomas Johansen wrote: “the human body appears less like a prison for the rational soul and more, as one might put it, like a rather comfortable hotel with quite a few research facilities built in.”1 It should now be obvious that Jorgenson has developed this contrast in his study of “Plato’s Later Thought,” resuscitating the historicist approach to the dialogues in pursuit of his single well-defined objective. His study of “the embodied soul” should therefore be regarded as both timely and untimely, but above all as revealing. It may be the case that the great majority of human beings become increasingly attached to life in the body as they grow older, but those of us who struggle against this tendency will always draw inspiration from Plato, whose Socrates, in the most unforgettably dramatic manner possible (and much to Nietzsche’s chagrin) described philosophy as “the practice of death.” As Jorgenson admits, there are “other hermeneutical possibilities,” and by using the trope of “Plato’s Development” to assimilate the great visionary of the disembodied soul to our own currently body-based sensibilities,2 Jorgenson’s refusal to let Plato be Plato suggests the trope’s true purpose: to escape the shadow of the immortal Phaedo.


1. Thomas Kjeller Johansen, Plato’s Natural Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 157.

2. Cf. Coleen P. Zoller, Plato and the Body: Reconsidering Socratic Asceticism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2018).