SELFHOOD AND THE SOUL: Essays on Ancient Thought and Literature in Honour of Christopher Gill

Edited by Richard Seaford, John Wilkins and Matthew Wright

OUP (2017) h/b 331pp £70 (ISBN 9780198777250)

This is a long review of a major set of essays by the foremost experts in a range of related fields, and represents the best possible tribute to the work of Chris Gill. It is heavily weighted (10:3) towards the Greeks rather than Romans, but all the essays are connected with the quest for the definition of the self and the purpose of our lives. All ancient sources are translated into English.

In the opening essay Seaford looks at the historical development of the concept of the self from Homer to Plato, linking it with the growth of money and arguing that the nature of money creates isolated individuals rather than the ‘relational’ nature of barter.

Katja Maria Vogt’s piece on ‘Hope and Truth in Plato’s Philebus’ looks at issues of pleasure and pain and the relationship between them and our anticipation of the future.

Richard Sorabji takes on the thorny topic of the Graeco-Roman origins of freedom and will. Asked whether he believed in free will, somebody replied ‘what choice do I have?’—and there is a good deal of discussion in the ancient world from Homer to Augustine about the interplay of determinism and our sense of free volition. S. looks at these in the light of Stoic beliefs in fate and our assent to it.

R.J. Hankinson’s essay on ‘Survival and the Self’ is pertinent to us all and takes a coherent logical approach to the concept of personal continuity and the role memory plays in this. Starting with the harmonia theory of the soul in Plato’s Phaedo, he distinguishes different types of memory as possible establishers of personal identity and also tackles the Epicurean position that even if our atoms were to reform and reconstitute us again this would not be ‘us’ as the memory-recollection would have been snapped (Lucretius 3. 847-851). There is some fascinating analysis of the thought-experiment made famous by Parfit—if I were tele-transported to Mars by means of a machine which downloaded all my physiological and psychological states before uploading them into a new body on Mars, would the new ‘me’ be the same as the old ‘me’? And if the old ‘me’ were still on earth, would both of ‘us’ be ‘me’? This kind of cloning raises good questions about whether selfhood is co-extensive with either the physical data describing my current state or with the fact that both versions of ‘me’ would share memories.

David Sedley’s essay on ‘Epicurean versus Cyrenaic ideas of Happiness’ tackles the issue of whether anticipation of future pleasure (and recollection of past pleasures) are in themselves pleasures, in answer to the tricky business of interpreting the Greek of Epicurus’ own deathbed letter (Diogenes Laertius 10.22) with its suggestion that a ‘whole life’ could be considered ‘happy’, even though not every moment of anyone’s life is likely to be pleasurable – a factor which led the Cyrenaics to decide that pleasure was μονόχρονος or ‘unitemporal’. A complete (παντελής) life is available to the Epicurean no matter how short his lifespan, whereas some people never acquire the complete katastematic pleasure [i.e. felt from being in a constant state of mind] of ἀταραξία no matter how old they become—such folk are never ready to die (as mocked by Lucretius (3. 952-963)).

Malcolm Schofield’s essay on ‘Cicero on Imperialism and the soul’ looks at the political ramifications of justice within the soul. He takes on Roman imperialism as discussed in what remains of Cicero’s de re publica. Like Plato, Cicero tackles the question of whether ‘justice’ is always the right thing to do or whether we are naturally disposed to dominate others and so need to practise injustice in the interests of higher forms of political flourishing; benevolent rule could be in the interests both of the masters and of the subjects even if it reduces the freedoms of others. S. draws out the distinction (articulated in Aristotle Politics 11.5) between the rule of the mind over the body (where the body willingly obeys the mind) and the rule of the mind over the baser appetites (where the appetites resist like slaves resisting their master). He then gives us some excellent discussion of imperialism and the degree to which states were ‘slaves to Rome’ (as M. Lavan’s recent book on the empire is entitled) or whether they benefited from the pax Romana and so were in fact better off. This kind of political and social self-reflection is a prime example of how the finest scholarship on the ancient world can jump off the page and sound alarmingly modern to our post-colonial ears.

From Realpolitik to religious metaphysics, Gretchen Reydams-Schils looks at Maximus of Tyre’s discussion of God and providence. This may seem something of a leap but in fact there is a nice continuity between Schofield on political control and R-S. on divine control of our lives.

Nicholas Banner’s essay on Plotinus (‘The Indeterminate Self and its Cultivation’) is a model of clarity—something of a rarity in the literature on this neo-Platonist—and takes us through the theory of hypostaseis as showing the quest for ‘philosophical ascent’ in terms which are both illuminating and emotionally powerful. Ancient philosophy was, after all, a search for ‘the good life’ rather than dry analysis of propositions, and B. nicely makes us see the personal in the philosophical without losing sight of the analysis itself.

It is hard to discuss our selves without bringing in the medics, and P.N. Singer gives us a good discussion of Galen on emotional disturbances—rage in particular. Galen looked at the physiology which accompanies emotional states and was eager to explain both. Being angry will raise your blood pressure of course, but is the rage itself the result of a bodily state (‘boiling of heat in the heart’ ζέσις… τοῦ κατὰ τὴν καρδίαν θερμοῦ) rather than vice versa? One wonders what Galen would have made of the pharmacopeia available to the modern GP—chemicals which can either cause or control emotional states at will. Galen would have been happier with the physiological explanation, S. argues, than he was with the Stoic explanation of rage as simply ‘desire for revenge’ (ἡ τῆς ἀντιτιμωρήσεως ὄρεξις).

After rage in Galen we have the music of the Stoics in Paul Scade’s essay. As with Singer’s essay on Galen, the initial emphasis is on the way in which external stimuli (music in this case) can affect our emotional states. Music can certainly arouse feelings, and Greeks recognised this (see e.g. Aristophanes Thesmophoriazusai 130-134, Plato Republic 398b-400c); where the argument gets interesting is when they also see music (made up of tight structures of harmony and mathematical ratios) as reflecting the order of the world—the ‘music of the spheres’—at which point music can be seen as being a reflection and a result of reason rather than passion. Anyone who has tried to write a symphony would no doubt agree that free-flowing emotion is not to the fore when one is struggling with the secondary sevenths. Music can thus express in a non-verbal way the logos which is at the heart of Stoic conceptions of the world, and the psychological applications of this also recalls the Platonic theory of the soul as itself a harmonia (which Hankinson has discussed pp. 74-77). Music conveys these truths by its form as well as its content, being itself a product and a representation of the reason which is at the heart of the Stoic life.

The final three essays are concerned with literature rather than philosophy, physiology and psychology. Matthew Wright looks at eros in Greek Tragedy, composing his piece in the manner of Roland Barthes, with an alphabetical list of terms to show his contention that eros is not simply viewed in tragedy as a destructive form of (often lethal) madness. The old assumption that tragedy didactically shows the way in which sexual desire wrecks homes and cities (think Helen and Troy) is challenged as an adequate and sufficient description of eros in tragedy. Obviously tragic stories are unlikely to have many happy-ever-afters, but the use of eros in tragedy is not confined to the death and destruction of its hero(in)es, and love is as much a theme in New comedy as it is in Attic tragedy. The view of eros which emerges from the ‘lover’s dictionary’ which W. gives us is one of power, pain, magic, madness, sickness, and tyranny as well as light, sport, wine, and poetry.

Emma Gee takes us on a journey into and through the underworld of Aeneid 6, using the insights of psychoanalysis and psychogeography to comment on Virgil’s use of space in what is a literary rather than a literal manner. ‘The ancient reader would not expect to … draw a map from Virgil’s description of the underworld.’ (p. 257). In ancient societies, without ready access to maps, space is fluid and viewed in different, relativistic ways depending on the situation, and Virgil’s Aeneid 6, if read literally, gives us a bizarre ‘Russian doll’ (p. 260) cosmology in which heaven contains the world which contains an underworld which has its own heaven within itself. So notions of ‘up’ and ‘down’ become baffling and this is how things must be when discussing the ineffable. It would be a poor underworld which could be mapped like Milton Keynes, and (besides) Virgil is a poet rather than a cartographer. G. nicely illustrates her essay, and nowhere better than in her discussion of Lacan’s torus as a model of the topological (rather than topographic) model of space which we find in Virgil.

Schadi Bartsch concludes the book with a piece on Persius which is largely taken from chapter 2 of her book on the poet (cf. my review on this site), and uses this material well to align her theme with the medical and Stoic themes of this volume, starting with the Platonic (Gorgias 465c) contrast of medicine/philosophy and cookery/rhetoric and pointing out that food was largely what medicine consisted in and so comestibles of both sorts could kill or cure. Persius’ verses are good for us in that they are ‘boiled down’ (decoctius) into concentrated medicinal form, vegetarian beets rather than ‘piggy meat’ (p. 278). Literature, not philosophy, can best play the role of the doctor (p.299). It is a pity that the copy-editing of this final essay let down a pretty unblemished record of accuracy so far in the book, leaving us with callidum for calidum (p. 278) and a bizarre misuse of the umlaut in note 21 (complete with lower case repetition of the offending word).

Taken together this is a hugely impressive collection of some of the finest scholarship at work on issues relevant to all of us. I hope that a paperback edition will come out to put the book more easily within the reach of libraries and readers.

John Godwin


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