Body and Mind Seminar Fall 2020 with Dr. Ryan Harte, postdoctoral fellow at Southern University of Science and Technology (Shenzhen, China) | Challenging Mind-Body Dualism in Plato with the Phaedrus

Written by Alba Curry

The Center for Hellenic Studies would like to extend their greatest thanks and appreciation to all of those who participated in the second meeting of the Body and Mind Seminar. We would also like to thank Dr. Ryan Harte for his talk, which aimed at complicated-straightforward mind-body dualism in Plato.

Harte argued that any account of soul/body in Plato should take account of the corporeal, physical body and the textual, written body, both of which are sites of embodiment or the soul manifesting itself. And in both cases—the corporeal and the textual body—the Phaedrus disrupts any simple soul/body dualism. Soul and body are not separable dualistic entities. Instead, they are entangled and enmeshed. Plato shows this entangled soul/body in both the content and the form of the Phaedrus.

The Phaedrus is famous for being a written text in which Socrates criticizes writing. Rather than diving into the debate around Plato interpretation, Harte focused on how Socrates does allow for the possibility of writing that is more than mere dead, external marks. Phaedrus describes it this way: “You’re talking about the living [zōnta] and ensouled [empsukhon] discourse [logon] of the one who knows…” (276a). They say that this sort of living writing is “written in the soul” [graphomenois en psukhēi] (278). In Republic IX, Socrates suggests that this empsukhon logon is “forming an image of the soul through words.” This suggests a connection between soul and language echoed by empsukhon logon. These “soul images” disrupt the straightforward “becoming godlike” model in which the rational soul frees itself from the imperfect body. The soul is instead depicted as shifting and moving, a process of responding to things outside oneself, and thus the soul itself is constituted by things outside oneself—this is a far cry from the rational immortal essence of orthodox Platonism.

The soul for Plato is something that mortals can only say what it is like, and not what it is (Phaedrus. 246a). In the Phaedrus and most other dialogues, Plato only writes about the soul in myth or poetic imagery. Harte takes seriously these stylistic features, examining several images in the Phaedrus, for example, the famous chariot image of the soul and the lover contemplating the beautiful beloved. In every case, Harte shows that if we take Plato’s poetic language seriously and not as merely decorative containers for systematic doctrines, we are left with a much messier picture than any neat soul/body separation or dichotomy. Plato’s imagery rather presents a more entangled view in which to be ensouled is to be in motion between extremes.

Harte ended with an exploration of how this understanding of ensoulment applies to Socrates’ mysterious “ensouled discourse” (empsukhon logon), arguing that ensouled writing is writing that elicits a response from a reader, moving us to think and question. Just as a soulless body is dead and unmoving, so soulless writing is fossilized and incapable of igniting self-knowledge. And, just as we become embodied through forgetting, writing, Socrates says, induces a kind of forgetting in us. Harte suggested that perhaps this forgetting is an example of the sort of movement characterizing souls, a relinquishing of one thing and a gaining of another.

One question for Harte asked how Plato’s ideal of “becoming godlike” (homoiōsis theōi) may relate to the Chinese notion of ‘ru shen’ (如神) or “becoming like divinity.” Another question wondered how the critique of dualism in the Phaedrus might apply to the Phaedo, which has an even more famous argument for dualism. Harte suggested that anyone wanting the beginnings of a good, heterodox look at Plato should start with Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good.

We would like to extend a special thanks to Professor Lisa Raphals from the University of California, Riverside for her work as organizer of this semester’s Body and Mind Seminar Series. Questions of how our bodies relate to our minds and spirits are of central importance to several disciplines and are becoming an important focus of study in several areas of Classics. This fall semester seminar investigates current research and methodologies in conceptualizing perspectives on the body and its relation to mind, soul or spirit in the ancient Mediterranean. Topics include perspectives from anthropology, the history of sport, epic, gender medicine, the study of language and metaphor, philosophical debates, and practices of cult and sacrifice. Any interested researchers should write to for more details about the series schedule.