Today's author Q&A is with the editors of The Neoplatonic Socrates, Danielle A. Layne and Harold Tarrant. Today the name Socrates invokes a powerful idealization of wisdom and nobility that would surprise many of his contemporaries, who excoriated the philosopher for corrupting youth. The problem of who Socrates "really" was—the true history of his activities and beliefs—has long been thought insoluble, and most recent Socratic studies have instead focused on reconstructing his legacy and tracing his ideas through other philosophical traditions. But this scholarship has neglected to examine closely a period of philosophy that has much to reveal about what Socrates stood for and how he taught: the Neoplatonic tradition of the first six centuries C.E., which at times decried or denied his importance yet relied on his methods. In The Neoplatonic Socrates, leading scholars in classics and philosophy address this gap by examining Neoplatonic attitudes toward the Socratic method, Socratic love, Socrates's divine mission and moral example, and the much-debated issue of moral rectitude.
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Penn Press: In areas where Socrates or Socratic themes appear in Neoplatonists’ work, how would you characterize their conception of Socrates?
Layne and Tarrant: The image of Socrates in late antiquity is multi-faceted and complex. He is easily regarded, in contrast to contemporary portraits that emphasize Socratic irony or ignorance, as a wise man, a sage even, whose primary influence was the saving or uplifting of the souls of all he encountered. While this image may seem strange to us insofar as we are more comfortable with a proto-rationalist Socrates who refuses to commit to any form of dogmatism, the Neoplatonic Socrates remains faithful to Plato’s depiction of a devotee of Apollo, who at the bequest of the god cared more for his soul and the souls of the Athenians than for knowledge of a human variety. Furthermore, Socratic themes in Neoplatonic works also testify to their treatment of Plato’s ethical theories, demonstrating that the philosophers of late antiquity did not abandon this strain in Socratic philosophy in favor of building a highly elaborate and ultimately ethereal metaphysics. The constant engagement of Socratic refrains from Plotinus to Simplicius instead evidences that none of these thinkers turned a blind eye to the all-important discussion of virtue and the good life, utilizing the paradigm of Socrates as an exemplar of wisdom and happiness.