In this book, David McNeill illuminates Plato’s distinctive approach to philosophy by examining how his literary portrayal of Socrates manifests an essential interdependence between philosophic and ethical inquiry. In particular, McNeill demonstrates how Socrates’s confrontation with profound ethical questions about his public philosophic activity is the key to understanding the distinctively mimetic, dialogic, and reflexive character of Socratic philosophy.
Taking a cue from Nietzsche’s account of “the problem of Socrates,” McNeill shows how the questions Nietzsche raises are questions that, in Plato's depiction, Socrates was aware of and responded to. McNeill also shows how the Republic provides a view of Socratic moral psychology that resembles Nietzsche’s account of human psychology: it deals with the internalized ethical narratives and justificatory schemes through which human beings orient themselves to their world. McNeill argues that this moral psychology not only determines Socrates’s explicit account of different character types and political regimes but also crucially informs his dialectical engagements with his various interlocutors in the dialogues.
In addition to contributing a unique perspective to current debates about Socrates’s philosophic methods and the significance of the literary character of Plato’s dialogues, the book offers a far-reaching interpretation of Plato’s presentation of the theoretical and practical activities of the fifth-century Sophists. And in showing how Plato responds to “modern” theoretical challenges, McNeill provides new evidence to question standard views of the differences between ancient and modern conceptions of the self, society, and nature.