Saturday, March 26, 2011


Brooke Holmes, The Symptom and the Subject: The Emergence of the Physical Body in Ancient Greece. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010. Pp. xxii, 355. ISBN 9780691138992. $45.00.

Reviewed by Octavian Gabor, Purdue University (

Version at BMCR home site


When we wonder about the Greeks' ideas about human nature in the ancient world, we are typically drawn toward the study of psyche, or psukhe, as Brooke Holmes prefers it. Holmes proposes a different and fresh avenue: she believes that focusing on the Greeks' understanding of soma, and especially on how this is treated in the medical writings, would better allow us to see the emergence of what we may call dualism as well as of the ethical subject. Her argument is not only convincing, but also written in a beautiful prose that makes her volume, The Symptom and the Subject: The Emergence of the Physical Body in Ancient Greece, a remarkable, thoroughly enjoyable read.

Holmes covers an impressive array of texts, from Homer and archaic poetry to Democritus, the sophists, Plato's philosophy, and Euripides' tragedy. While dealing with philosophical subjects (the nature of human being, the relation between body and soul, or one's care for one's life), the volume is not necessarily a philosophical work. This is by no means a criticism. In fact, drawing from philosophical, literary, and comparative methods, Holmes succeeds in providing a compelling story of the historical development not only of the concept of body, but also that of person and soul. The novelty of her approach rests on her suggestion that it was not the psyche, but rather the soma that came first. Holmes relies on phenomenological interpretations and engages with the major relevant scholarship. The text is abundant in learned footnotes that direct the reader to various sources and is based on a thorough bibliography of some 43 pages.

Unsurprisingly, the book begins with Snell's famous claim that there is no concept of the body in Homer. While I am a bit puzzled by the lack of exposure that Robert Renehan's critique of Snell's account gets—two short footnotes seem insufficient for doing justice to an important voice in the scholarship about the meaning of soma in Homer—I think Holmes wisely avoids any dualistic talk about soul and body.1 From the beginning, she suggests that the Greeks dealt with things that could be inscribed within two categories: the seen and the felt. In the former, the author includes "both of the ways in which Hector appears to the Achaeans after his death: as a three-dimensional, penetrable object; and as a human form, distinguished by its breeding, phue, and a particular look, eidos." The latter refers to "the conscious field that constitutes the unity of the self, as well as the daemonic energies that cut across it" (42).

This division between the seen and the felt, which are, after all, two perspectives on the person, allows Holmes to talk about humans without any reference to the mind-body problem. This approach is welcome on two levels: on the one hand, it dismisses any anachronistic dualist interpretations of Greek thought. On the other hand, it provides a tool through which one can describe what the ancients considered to be a human. Using the two concepts, Holmes can describe a person as a space of passage and transformation between daemonic forces, on the one hand, and symptoms and actions, on the other. Consider a human being. There are changes that one can see in how another person looks or behaves. Such a symptom is "a disruption—without obvious cause and often, though not always, painful—either to the experience of self or to the outward presentation of self. Insistently real, symptoms point to an imperceptible dimension of reality that cuts across the world that we do perceive" (2). Holmes does not consider symptoms to be windows into a previously unseen world, one that can be understood. Conversely, she believes that these phenomena generate and sustain worldviews. The history of these worldviews is, after all, the history of the emergence of the physical body.

In the first chapter, Holmes shows how the cause of symptoms is usually attributed in Homer and in archaic poetry to unseen but felt forces which can ravish someone interiorly. Such a worldview presupposes the existence of a plane populated by social agents. It is the gods that inflict diseases into people or attack them so that warriors on the battlefield may experience a change in their thumos. The change in thumos felt by the hero is also seen on the battlefield by his opponents. But this attack has another parallel: when a spear enters a person, it passes from this seen spot through the potentially seen parts of a human being (the interior that can be seen if one is cut open) and exists in another seen spot. The daemonic attack is somewhat similar: there are some boundaries, although not distinctly clear, of the felt, and this felt is constituted of those powers or faculties that a human feels within oneself: thumos, etor, kradie, and sometimes, Holmes adds, even menos, noos, and psukhe (page 60-1). It may be, the author suggests, that we cannot yet talk about a physical body and a soul, but there is a clear distinction between some thing that has a boundary, the skin, the seen, and a domain which is harder to distinguish, the felt, which is nonetheless shown through symptoms and felt as a presence by the subject.

In the second chapter, Holmes continues to develop the story of the emergence of the body by looking at the natural philosophers of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. The main change that takes place in their works is that the forces that create symptoms no longer have intentions of their own. It is no longer gods and daemonic forces as social agents that change the appearance of persons, but rather impersonal forces of nature. This change brings with itself the possibility of knowledge. The medical writings emphasize this aspect. The physician assumes essentially a disembodied position, that of the knower faced with the object of his techne, the body. It is a relationship different than the one between the physician and the patient. The relationship between physician and body is fairly objective: a knower deals with a mixture of basic elements constituted in a body that is subject to influences from outside—what the body takes within itself mainly by means of nutrition but also by submitting itself to differences in temperature or moisture. This relation is sometimes sabotaged by the patient who, not having the knowledge of the physician, puts his own body in danger. But what is important here is that a new relation comes up: that between the person/patient and his body, which Holmes will analyze in the fourth and fifth chapters.

The author continues her analysis of the medical writings in the third chapter. Holmes reemphasizes that the medical writings depersonalize the cause of diseases, distributing the power that creates them over a series of micro-events. She brings into discussion the concept of cavity, defined as "a space largely beyond what the physician can see and, crucially, below the threshold of consciousness" (15). This cavity is slowly equated with the body, which becomes the mysterious substratum of the person. Mysterious because it is still a cavity, one that receives from the outside things that can manage or that can overpower it. The understanding of how these forces affect the body engenders a science of care. Everything in the medical writings is a question of science. As one of these writers emphasizes in On Places in a Human Being, there is no luck for medicine. (see p. 143-4). The physical substances hidden within the person and revealed by the symptoms do not any longer come from a totally different world, that of the daemonic. Instead, the series of micro-events that take place within the cavity can explain everything about disease, to the point where having knowledge about causes would ensure not contracting a malady.

Chapters four and five are the most intriguing. Holmes' ideas seduce you, but at the same time leave you with a feeling of frustration. They seduce because they bring new avenues to interpret Greek philosophy and its interest in what the good life is, and they frustrate because they leave these avenues not fully explored. Let me explain both of these claims.

Holmes' argument that the analogies to medical practices found in Plato and Aristotle are explainable by the fact that the Greek society had an increased interest in the care for the self is compelling. Up to this point, the discussion was mainly about the cavity, that which is between causes and symptoms. That means that the care for a human being was rather the care for his body by means of a techne applied from the outside by an objective knower, the physician. Chapters four and five bring the patient into discussion. The choices the patient makes can both endanger and help his life. But a patient does not always act according to knowledge, and so one of the problems raised is how and if knowing what is good for oneself can bring about suitable action—which raises the problem of akrasia. The medical writers already target, as Holmes compellingly shows, the capacity of a patient to take care of himself (182). This already suggests a split in the patient between that which takes care and that which is taken care of. With this, the problem of responsibility comes up. In Holmes' words, a person becomes an ethical subject, "by which I mean a subject capable of taking responsibility for the physical body, and thus of being praised or blamed for its care" (182).

The split between the provider of care and its recipient raises the question of who is the provider, the self, and how the self takes care of itself. The ethics of care is further amplified in philosophy, especially that of Plato. With this suggestion, Holmes brings to light the importance of the ancient medical writings in the understanding of soma and psukhe, but also the huge relevance that these writings should have in the analysis of Plato's philosophy. It is here where the frustration comes. While Holmes' insights are exciting and stimulating, she leaves you with a desire to see more. She does not analyze in detail the tension between need and desire that is at the basis of Plato's treatment of akrasia or of what it means to have a good life. It may well be that such an endeavor is beyond the purposes of this volume, as Holmes herself acknowledges in a couple of places (on page 210, for example, she mentions that "Plato's growing interest in the nature of desire makes his exploration of psychic disease increasingly complex, too complex to tackle further here"). But the feeling of frustration remains. Nevertheless, even this frustration is a positive sign: Holmes' careful reading of the medical sources has shown how much light they can shed on on Plato's and, for that matter, Aristotle's understanding of psukhe.

The final chapter moves into tragedy, mainly that of Euripides, in which one can further see "the problem of responsibility in a world uncertain about ethical agency" (230). The analysis is fresh. Holmes shows the relevance that medicine has for tragedy, especially regarding the violence that the subject can suffer from forces from outside and the struggles for power that can take place within a human being. Nevertheless, I thought the author could have engaged more with other scholars whose reading of tragedies are based on the idea of violence, for example René Girard.

As a final word, let me restate that Brooke Holmes' volume is a wonderful read that would be enjoyed not only by scholars but also by people interested in the history of ideas in the Greek world. I also think that such a work must be a source for any future analysis of the concepts of person, soul, and body in Greek philosophy and literature.


1.   R. Renehan, "The Meaning of ΣΩΜΑ in Homer: A Study in Methodology" California Studies in Classical Antiquity 12, 269-82.

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