Tuesday, March 28, 2017


Alex Dressler, Personification and the Feminine in Roman Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xiii, 312. ISBN 9781107105966. $99.99.

Reviewed by Sean McConnell, University of Otago (sean.mcconnell@otago.ac.nz)

Version at BMCR home site

It is a common conception that Roman philosophical writers routinely champion masculine values and virtues, in accordance with the male-dominated and patriarchal nature of Roman society in general. This book boldly problematizes such a view. Its core thesis is that feminine values and virtues play a much larger role in Roman philosophy than has been appreciated, in particular in (male) Roman thinking about 'self', 'identity', 'personhood', 'the nature of oneself both as individual and member of community', and all such related topics.

The book's complicated and multi-faceted line of argument is structured around a few compelling core premises: (1) Roman men from youth onwards to some degree discerned themselves as both subjects and objects, as both active (associated with the masculine) and passive (associated with the feminine) beings, whose identity as a person is not only self-fashioned and in their control but also imposed on them by external forces (the love of their mothers, the opinions of other men, cultural norms, etc.) or by parts of themselves that are discovered rather than created; (2) Roman men not only were aware of their own vulnerability and recognized 'the feminine other' in themselves, they also reflected deeply about themselves and, in characteristic dominating male fashion, sought to objectify and deal with 'the feminine other' through a variety of strategies that turn out to be more inclusive and subtle than simple denial or excision – there is a fitting place for 'the feminine other' in the Roman male conception of 'self'; (3) Roman philosophers 'express that experience in the figure of feminine personifications' (p. 3), in their sophisticated literary and philosophical use of gendered language and metaphor and so forth. By filling in many of the details via close examination of key texts and concepts, the book offers a substantial contribution to our appreciation of the distinctive features and anxieties of Roman masculinity and philosophical thought more generally.

In the first chapter the notion of 'ownness' – the feeling of being one's own self – is presented in such a way that it is ubiquitous in Roman philosophy of all stripes. More or less in keeping with the Stoic notion of oikeiosis, the feeling of 'ownness' defines the limits of one's self, which might encompass others too, in so far as one can locate 'the other in the self' (p. 40) through some distinctive feeling (such as a mother's bond with her child). Conversely, one can also see 'the self in the other', as vulnerable, dependent, needing love and affection, and so forth. The chapter usefully shows Roman interest in unpacking, if not resolving, binary oppositions such as 'self/other' and 'active/passive', and as a result space is opened up for reflection on feminine elements in the male self.

In the second chapter ancient and modern theories of personification are discussed. Plenty of examples show how the literary trope of personification operates. There is also an engaging exploration of vexing philosophical issues that arise in the act of personifying oneself – for instance, what implications for personhood arise from the ability to adopt a second- or third-person subjective or reflexive standpoint on oneself?

The third chapter returns to the Stoic notion of oikeiosis and explores how Cicero and Seneca treat our development of a sense of self, emphasizing the role played by external agents such as personified (feminized) nature and women (our mothers, our nurses) in our infancy.

The fourth chapter introduces Lucretius to the discussion, with particular attention given to the animus / anima distinction that neatly indicates the masculine/feminine binary in the conception of personhood and self. Through careful analysis of Lucretius' use of personification and metaphor in key passages fromDe rerum natura, the dominance of feminine forces or agency is made clear.

The fifth chapter focuses once again on Stoic thinking about the self and personhood. In particular, it offers an interesting discussion of philosophical questions concerning the basis of self-identification (for example, how do we attach to or become or feel 'I'?) and our experience of ourselves (for example, how do we understand ourselves internally as subjects ('I') as well as externally as objects ('me')? What are the respective roles of feeling and understanding? And how does language figure in all this?). A number of modern philosophers such as Descartes, Husserl, and Derrida figure in the discussion, and it is suggested persuasively that the ancients Seneca, Cicero, and Saint Augustine already were entertaining positions on personal identity that are usually deemed distinctive of modernity.

The sixth chapter introduces property and ownership into the equation through an examination of Cicero's De officiis. The notion of private property is associated with masculine individualism and acts of exclusion ('this is mine, not yours') while shared property – such as the family and the home – is associated with feminine communalism and acts of inclusion ('this is ours'). The cardinal virtue of decorum is shown to involve both the masculine and feminine aspects – we are by nature our own property and we should have regard to what we own by nature, but we also by nature belong to others and so we should have regard for our outward appearance and our impact on them too. On the whole the chapter offers a stimulating discussion of gendered aspects in Cicero's treatment of the self as something 'owned', and as something both private and public.

The basic aims and approach of the book are enticing, and for the most part the chapters offer detailed literary and philosophical analysis that is insightful. There is, however, a lot of dense methodological groundwork in the introduction that perhaps goes beyond what is required and certainly makes the book hard to get into after an absorbing first few pages. The author is at pains to orientate the book in (to name a few) contemporary feminist theory (an explicitly feminist line is adopted, with some agonizing about the validity and implications of being a male feminist), Marxist thought, deconstruction, and debates about the nature of and relationship between 'philosophy' and 'literature'. As a result, the book as a whole delves into a huge range of topics (at times in a somewhat haphazard fashion) and is laced with loaded quotations from various theorists, with fuzzy technical terms, with emphatic italicized words (lest you miss the key bits or fail to grasp the profundity of the argument), and with the sort of English sentences that seem intended to stymie rather than aid comprehension. To be sure, the book is a very challenging read and the author's style takes some getting used to (it will no doubt excite some and repel others), but the effort is worth it in the end.

In sum, Personification and the Feminine in Roman Philosophy sheds new light on how Roman philosophers grappled with the nature of subjectivity, gender identity, and a host of other issues. In the conclusion the author defends and emphasizes the significance of the book's overarching critical approach, but most value is to be found in the details of particular readings of the ancient sources (some are more persuasive and compelling than others; for those who wish to delve into the book, there is a good Index Locorum). All those interested in ancient philosophy, Latin literature, Roman social history, and gender studies will find much to ponder and argue over in this book.

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