Wednesday, March 28, 2018


Richard Seaford, John Wilkins, Matthew Wright (ed.), Selfhood and the Soul: Essays on Ancient Thought and Literature in Honour of Christopher Gill. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Pp. xi, 331. ISBN 9780198777250. $105.00.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Ulrich, Wellesley College (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

It is a humbling realization for anyone about to review a Festschrift to realize that, in order to appreciate fully the arguments presented in the volume under consideration, one would have to be the honorand to whom it is dedicated. Indeed, Selfhood and the Soul covers such a broad range of material—from the evolution of the psychē in Archaic Greek literature to Galen's physiological analysis of rage, from underworld geographies in Vergil to Persianic satire—across multiple distinct disciplines— philosophy, medicine, music, literature—that it would be impossible to give a thorough treatment of such a text without possessing all the interests and expertise that Christopher Gill acquired over a long and distinguished career.

Selfhood and the Soul evolved out of a 2013 conference held at Exeter to honor Christopher Gill and, broadly speaking, the volume is meant to reflect (but not fully encapsulate) the kinds of questions he explored throughout his career: questions about the boundaries of the self, identity, and the soul in antiquity, about the development of personality and psychology, and about the intersection of literature, philosophy, and medicine. As such, the thirteen stand-alone contributions in Selfhood and the Soul, though lacking a unified theme or question—a goal the editors explicitly eschew—deploy a variety of methodologies aimed at elucidating, implicitly or explicitly, "some aspect of selfhood or the soul" (2).

After an introduction co-authored by Seaford, Wilkins, and Wright, Selfhood and the Soul opens with a piece by Richard Seaford (ch. 1), which represents a significant expansion on earlier work. In it, Seaford addresses anew Bruno Snell's old claim that there is no concept of "consciousness" in Homer that mirrors our word for "soul" by appealing to a historical phenomenon previously unrecognized—namely, how the psychē as a form of "consciousness" evolves in tandem with the emergence of Greek coinage. 1 With a comprehensive treatment of sources from Homer to the pre-Socratics, Seaford convincingly argues that the process of abstraction required to endow coined money with value—a level of abstraction, he notes, absent from gift-exchange cultures such as Homeric society—is parallel to the philosophical process of recognizing and naming an abstract, individual and metaphysical soul.

Five subsequent chapters (2, 3, 4, 5, and 8) constitute a thematic cluster, exploring the philosophical struggles involved in (a) experiencing pleasure and happiness, (b) recollecting the past, and (c) making choices for the future. Katja Maria Vogt opens this cluster with a study of "hope" in Plato's Philebus (ch. 2), in which she suggests that, contrary to earlier Greek conceptions of elpis as empty and deceptive, Plato recognizes "hope" as a "future-directed" anticipation, one "essential to agency" and "informative [as an] affective response" (38). Here, Vogt is primarily concerned with showing how hope points to potential future states of pleasure, and how, furthermore, agents are compelled to use their imaginations to choose what to pursue. One must imagine different future lives—such as that of Plato's sea-urchin (Philebus 21c)—to make well-informed choices. A related question of choice (prohairesis; voluntas) is explored in the next chapter by Richard Sorabji (ch. 3), who builds on previous seminal work to explore the origins of both the concept of the "will" and of the "free will." In particular, Sorabji responds to Frede's claim that Epictetus predated Augustine in developing a notion of the "will" by demonstrating how, in fact, many strands of Augustine's conception of voluntas can be deciphered in texts from Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Lucretius, and Plotinus (not Epictetus).3

Whereas Vogt and Sorabji deal with future-directed choices, R. J. Hankinson (ch. 4) sets out to elucidate questions of the continuity of personhood and of retained memories of a past self. Within the collection, Hankinson employs the most distinctly analytic approach to discuss the survival of the soul across transmigrations and even tele-transportations gone awry. Related to Hankinson's question of continuant identity across bodily transmigrations is Nicholas Banner's treatment of Plotinus' conception of the self (ch. 8): the soul of the philosopher can be transformed through ascent and yet still retain an indeterminate selfhood, existing somewhere between pure soul and body. Finally, David Sedley closes out this thematic cluster (ch. 5) with a helpful archaeology of Epicurus' concept of mental pleasure, where he traces in particular how Epicurus developed his theory of eudaimonia in response to the competing claims of the contemporary Cyrenaic school. Whereas pleasure is "unitemporal" (monochronos) according to Cyrenaic doctrine, and therefore can only be enjoyed at the very moment it is experienced—like Plato's sea-urchin—Epicurean pleasures can be felt in a mediated way both in retrospect and in prospect. Thus, according to Sedley, the "Epicurean complete life is enjoyed synoptically, and not just episodically" (104).

The next thematic group (6, 7, 9, and 10) departs from broad-brush philosophical concerns with selfhood and turns, instead, towards the application of these types of questions to specific authors. In Chapter 6, Malcolm Schofield aims to recover a largely lost debate from Cicero's De Re Publica over whether empire can ever come about in a purely just manner. Demonstrating how Cicero develops the comparison—differently from Aristotle—between the soul's control over the body and a master's power over a slave, Schofield argues that Cicero's Laelius in De Re Publica does not advocate for "a defense of empire as a form of just enslavement" (124). Gretchen Reydams-Schils analyzes Maximus of Tyre's conception of divinity and providence in Chapter 7, interpreting the metaphorical and literary language in a list of divine attributes—similar to those we find in other Middle Platonists (cf., e.g., Apul. Met. 11.5)—to show the fundamental syncretism in Maximus' theology. For Reydams-Schils, Stoic conceptions of a relational, and not strictly noetic divinity bleed into an otherwise Platonic framework in Oration 41.

Moving into the world of medicine, P. N. Singer (ch. 9) uncovers a physicalist interpretation of rage in understudied Galenic texts that go beyond the traditional psychological treatises historians of medicine generally consider. Indeed, the causal element of the phenomenon of rage—often occurring in certain circumstances (e.g., bathing)—is a particular material mixture of blood, pneuma, and heat from the body. Though Galen later endorses a concept of the Platonic tripartite soul, in Singer's view, he here reveals a more complicated and ambivalent relationship between material phenomena in the body and psychic responses. And last in this thematic cluster, Paul Scade (ch. 10) uses Galen's interpretation of music's irrational influence on the soul as a jumping off point to investigate how music was, in fact, seen as a rational and structured logos in the unified Stoic psychology, as a force that could be as powerful as language for the trained listener.

The final three chapters, which I found (together with Seaford's opening) to be the most innovative and compelling of the volume, take a distinct turn towards the literary. First of the triad is Matthew Wright's treatment of erōs in Greek tragedy (ch. 11), which by his own admission "pays heavy-handed hommage" to Barthes' Fragments d'un discours amoureux. Building on Barthes' demonstration that love is "not simply experienced by the subject but rather constructed through language" (220), Wright responds to the general trend in studies of Greek tragedy to see erōs as a strictly negative or problematic affection. By delineating in a Barthian-style "Lover's Dictionary" the various metaphors and epithets associated with erōs across the corpus of Greek tragedy (including fragments), Wright demonstrates that erōs in tragedy exists very much on a continuum with earlier and later Greek conceptions of love.

In the penultimate chapter (12), Emma Gee offers the boldest contribution of the collection, where she explores different approaches to visualizing underworld geographies by analogizing the process to mapping the structure of the soul. Underworld geography becomes, in her view, an "extrusion of the soul's configuration onto the idea of landscape" (245). Beginning with Freud's early attempt to map the soul in Civilization and Its Discontents—wherein he compares memory-traces in the soul to the palimpsest-like traces in the Eternal City—Gee proceeds through a series of modern psycho-geographies and ancient cartographies, roughly contemporaneous with Vergil, to describe the process of mapping layers of space in Aeneid 6's underworld. Inspired by Lacan, Gee cleverly suggests that more complex and interwoven topographies, such as the Mobius strip or the Torus, could more accurately model the structure of the soul and the topography of the afterlife.

Shadi Bartsch closes out the volume (ch. 13) with an expansion of her previous work on Persianic satire—a fitting final homage to Christopher Gill insofar as she expertly blends interpretations of Stoic philosophy, medicine, and literature. In short, Bartsch reads Persius' food metaphors across the satires as representing the genre as a cleansing antidote to the gustatory excesses of Neronian Rome. In contrast to Lucretius' honeyed-cup and much stronger and more pungent than Horace's crustula (Sat. 1.1.25), Persius' satire offers only boiled down (decoctius) medicinal vegetables and purgative beets, which "scrape" (radere) away bad mores just as actual beets were recommended to clean out the digestive tracts of patients. The satirist thus appropriates medical terms to make programmatic claims for the genre.

Overall, Selfhood and the Soul represents a high-quality, rich collection, comprised of thoughtful explorations of identity, the self, and the good life, and it will be useful to philologists, philosophers, and historians of medicine alike. What it lacks in unified theme and specificity, it makes up for in its focus, breadth, and substance of argumentation. There are, I should note, a great number of editorial errors that OUP let slip through, but I hope they can be fixed in a reprinting. Throughout the volume, prepositions and even verbs are routinely ellipsed, left to the reader to supply them (to cite a few: "to be pleased and to feel? pleasure and delight" (38) according to Philebus, not Protarchus, as Vogt claims; "by saying that what is up to us is in control of the choice…" (54); "…such as suspicion [not 'suspicious'], jealousy, hatred…" (290); and many others I do not have room here to enumerate). I also found two misprints of primary texts in my read through: one of a fragment (fr. 269) of Euripides in Wright's discussion, where καλῶν ἄπειρον ὢν is printed (235) and he, no doubt, means to print ἄπειρος; the second is more problematic, since Bartsch makes a rather strong claim (286-7) about decerpo in Persius' satire as it relates to Seneca's use of the verb in Thyestes 61, but prints discerpta (rather than decerpta), which is found in Tarrant's text.3 Infelicities aside, Selfhood and the Soul is an excellent volume, and will inspire in its readers a fascination with the same sorts of questions Christopher Gill spent his long career exploring.

Authors and titles

1. The Psychē from Homer to Plato: A Historical Sketch, Richard Seaford
2. Imagining Good Future States: Hope and Truth in Plato's Philebus, Katja Maria Vogt
3. Freedom and Will: Greco-Roman Origins, Richard Sorabji
4. Survival and the Self: Materialism and Metempsychosis, R. J. Hankinson
5. Epicurean versus Cyrenaic Happiness, David Sedley
6. Cicero on Imperialism and the Soul, Malcolm Schofield
7. Maximus of Tyre on God and Providence, Gretchen Reydams-Schils
8. The Indeterminate Self and its Cultivation in Plotinus, Nicholas Banner
9. The Essence of Rage: Galen on Emotional Disturbances and the Physical Correlates, P. N. Singer
10. Music and the Soul in Stoicism, Paul Scade
11. A Lover's Discourse: Erōs in Greek Tragedy, Matthew Wright
12. The Self and the Underworld, Emma Gee
13. Philosophy, Physicians, and Persianic Satire, Shadi Bartsch


1.   B. Snell, The Discovery of the Mind, trans. T. G. Rosenmeyer (New York, 1960), pp. 1-22.
2.   M. Frede, A Free Will: Origin of the Notion in Ancient Thought, ed. A. A. Long (Berkeley; Los Angeles, 2011). pp. 46 and 156-9.
3.   R. J. Tarrant (ed.), Seneca's Thyestes (Atlanta, Ga., 1985), p. 50.

No comments:

Post a Comment