The Soul of the Greeks: An Inquiry

The Soul of the Greeks: An Inquiry

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by Michael Davis

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The understanding of the soul in the West has been profoundly shaped by Christianity, and its influence can be seen in certain assumptions often made about the soul: that, for example, if it does exist, it is separable from the body, free, immortal, and potentially pure. The ancient Greeks, however, conceived of the soul quite differently. In this ambitious new


The understanding of the soul in the West has been profoundly shaped by Christianity, and its influence can be seen in certain assumptions often made about the soul: that, for example, if it does exist, it is separable from the body, free, immortal, and potentially pure. The ancient Greeks, however, conceived of the soul quite differently. In this ambitious new work, Michael Davis analyzes works by Homer, Herodotus, Euripides, Plato, and Aristotle to reveal how the ancient Greeks portrayed and understood what he calls “the fully human soul.”

Beginning with Homer’s Iliad, Davis lays out the tension within the soul of Achilles between immortality and life. He then turns to Aristotle’s De Anima and Nicomachean Ethics to explore the consequences of the problem of Achilles across the whole range of the soul’s activity. Moving to Herodotus and Euripides, Davis considers the former’s portrayal of the two extremes of culture—one rooted in stability and tradition, the other in freedom and motion—and explores how they mark the limits of character. Davis then shows how Helen and Iphigeneia among the Taurians serve to provide dramatic examples of Herodotus’s extreme cultures and their consequences for the soul. The book returns to philosophy in the final part, plumbing several Platonic dialogues—the Republic, Cleitophon, Hipparchus, Phaedrus, Euthyphro, and Symposium—to understand the soul’s imperfection in relation to law, justice, tyranny, eros, the gods, and philosophy itself. Davis concludes with Plato’s presentation of the soul of Socrates as self-aware and nontragic, even if it is necessarily alienated and divided against itself.

The Soul of the Greeks thus begins with the imperfect soul as it is manifested in Achilles’ heroic, but tragic, longing and concludes with its nontragic and fuller philosophic expression in the soul of Socrates. But, far from being a historical survey, it is instead a brilliant meditation on what lies at the heart of being human.

Editorial Reviews

Mary P. Nichols

“Davis’s book illustrates the meaning of philosophy, as it moves its reader from ordinary experience to profound insight about our human condition. Its breadth is as far-reaching as its depth, for what it understands by ‘psychology’ involves poetry and tragedy, barbarism and civilization, knowledge and intelligibility, politics and history, and cosmic principles and the divine. We might say of Davis’s book what he himself says of one the texts he discusses, ‘there is much to think about here.’ The Soul of the Greeks deserves to be one of the more important philosophic works of this century.”

Jill Frank

The Soul of the Greeks offers fresh interpretations of age-old texts that are deep, insightful, and revelatory. Richly rewarding, lucid, and original, Davis’s approach will add substantially to the existing scholarship.”

Ronna Burger

“From Homer’s Iliad to Aristotle’s De Anima, from Herodotus’s history and Euripides’ tragedies to the Platonic dialogues, Michael Davis recovers, through his probing readings of the Greeks, the fundamental problem of the human soul. Attuned to the recurrent puzzles that lead to the philosophic core of these works, Davis explores and illuminates their understanding of the essential ‘alienation’ of soul—its distance from the world—as the condition for its deepest longing and the nature of soul revealed by its necessary imperfection.”

Catherine Zuckert

“In The Soul of the Greeks Michael Davis takes up what may be the central and still unsolved problem of ancient philosophy—namely, what is soul? On the basis of a series of careful readings of selections from Aristotle, Herodotus, Euripides, and Plato, Davis argues that the question cannot be approached or answered directly, because soul is characterized by a certain kind of duality. It cannot know itself without seeing itself as somehow other, nor can it achieve its desire to become one and immortal without destroying itself. As Davis indicates by including analyses of works that have been characterized as history and poetry as well as philosophy, the question of the character of the human soul is not merely at the heart of the ‘ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy’ (if there really is such a quarrel).  It extends from the question of personal identity to the character and grounds of our common life, including the possibility and basis of our knowledge of the world.”

Bryn Mawr Classical Review - Octavian Gabor

“[T]he volume is a feast, and I encourage any lover of the Greeks to taste of it.”

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The Soul of the Greeks

An Inquiry

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-13796-4

Chapter One

The Doubleness of Soul

The problem of the dual function of soul is the soul of De Anima. Roughly speaking, Aristotle understands psuche as a principle of life or motion and a principle of awareness. Awareness, in turn, is double, dividing into the sensing of changing things and the cognition of unchanging things. The unity of the soul as aware is thus no less problematic than the unity of the soul as a whole. Sensation, in turn, is not unproblematically one. To be at all, it must first be unified in the common sense, for without a sense to unite the other senses, we would see red, touch soft ness, and smell sweetness but have no sensation of a flower as being something red, soft, and sweet-smelling. Now, if there were a separate organ of sensation for the common sense, it would have to sense the various acts of sensing it unifies—for example, sight seeing and touch feeling. The senses always have objects, and every act of sensing is defined by the object sensed. The common sense would thus both sense the act of seeing and in doing so also sense what the act of seeing sees—color. And yet if it, as a kind of sense, can have this double power, why isn't this possible for the various particular senses themselves? If there is a sense that can sense seeing, why cannot this sense be the sense of sight? Why needlessly complicate things? Yet, if the common sense does not have this double power, then another sense will be required to unify what it senses. This sense, in turn, would be subject to the same difficulty, and we would have begun an infinite regress. All of this suggests what Aristotle says quite explicitly at the very beginning of his account of the common sense—that is, that each of the senses both senses its object and senses itself sensing (425b12–20). In other words, sensation is itself fundamentally double in its nature. Aristotle, it seems, is reflecting on the status of the "I" in the following conversation: "Do you see the bird?" "No, but I'm looking. Oh, now I see it." We are aware of seeing through its successful taking in of an object—here, the bird. But we are also aware of it as an operation, as a verb. "I'm looking for x" does not mean "I see x." Sensation is thus double. At the same time, it is one, for the "I" must be the same not only of "I am looking" and of "I see" but also of "I hear," "I touch," and so forth. Aristotle wishes to give a coherent account of soul by itself. To do so, he articulates the unity of its two functions—as a principle both of life and of awareness. But this unity requires that he first unify each of these parts in turn. The unity of life requires the unification of nutrition and local motion—plant life and animal life. The unity of awareness requires the unification of the two parts of awareness—sensation and cognition. This, in turn, requires the unification of sensation by way of the common sense, which proves to be possible only by way of an analysis of sensation as fundamentally dual in its own right. And, as we will see, the other part of awareness, cognition, is intelligible only as itself embodying the fundamental dualism—passive mind and active mind. It begins to look as though in De Anima the sought for unity of soul shows itself only as the repeated unfolding of the problem of the unity of soul.

To understand soul, then, would require that we understand the principle that fuels this ongoing dualism. As a start, one might observe that life or motion seems to involve a particular and interested engagement with the world. Roughly speaking, the principle governing a being that needs nourishment is its good. On the other hand, awareness requires a certain neutrality to things that will not get in the way of their showing themselves as they are. But how is it possible for a being with a particular disposition or bent to be so self-effacing as to be "somehow all beings"? Won't the good proper to my nature interfere with the truth of my awareness? Put differently, how is it possible for awareness to be "mine" and still true? What sort of being is it that in order to be what it is—that is, something that takes things in—cannot be anything in particular? Can something that is potentially everything actually be anything? Or, if soul somehow becomes whatever it is aware of, what is it when it is not aware of anything in particular?

There is yet another way of getting at this tension within soul. It makes a certain sense that the principle of soul should be self-motion. Ensouled beings are alive—animated; they grow or have local motion or sense or think or combine these features in some way. They are in this way unlike things that are not alive, which seem to move or change only when they are affected from without by other things. Now, in order to understand this movement—to make it intelligible—we characteristically engage in some version of psychology. We give a logos, or account, of psuche; ordinarily, it takes the form of an analysis of soul in terms of its structure. The terms of the analysis vary, but whether we have in mind Freud's id, ego, and superego or the black horse, white horse, and charioteer in Socrates' famous image of the soul in the Phaedrus, once divided into its parts, one part of the soul is understood to be the cause of the motion of the whole. But if the black horse or the id is the principle of the soul's motion in the sense that the other parts simply regulate this more fundamental drive, we still do not know what moves the black horse. We are once more at the beginning of an infinite regress. In giving our account of the structure of soul, we have destroyed the principle of the soul as self-moving, for either the soul is not the soul—so, for example, the black horse is really the soul—or the soul is moved by something other than itself, and so is not the principle of its own motion, and so is not the soul.

One might put this in more contemporary terms. When we say that our libido or our DNA is responsible for what we do, part of what we generally mean is that we are not responsible. To give an explanation—a logos—of the behavior of soul turns out to be at odds with the soul's being a soul. There thus looks to be a necessary tension between the structure of soul (what would make it intelligible) and the principle of soul (what makes it soul). What sort of account might then be given of this remarkable being that can at once place it in a context (this is, after all, what we do when we explain things) and at the same time preserve its nature as the being in the world the being of which is to be detached from the world? If, in Aristotle's famous sentence, "the soul is somehow all beings," then the nature and possibility of psychology lie in the meaning of this "somehow."

The first sentence of De Anima already reveals the dualisms that make soul a problem.

Supposing eidesis to be one of the beautiful and honored things, one more than another either on account of precision or by belonging to either the better or more wondrous, on account of both of these, the inquiry about soul would with good reason be put among the first.

De Anima is not an obviously beautiful piece of writing. It is an ugly book that literally begins with the word beautiful. By praising the inquiry in the way that he does, Aristotle offers us an inducement to think about soul. The inquiry does not simply happen by itself; we must be moved to think. Our own activity is in its way an example of the problem we are about to address—soul as being a principle at once of motion and of awareness. Accordingly, when Aristotle homes in on the object of inquiry in De Anima, he says first that it is "one of the most difficult things to grasp with any confidence" (402a10–11) and directly aft er that what is sought is "the seeking about substance and the 'what is?'" (402a12–13). What Aristotle seeks in De Anima seems to be not so much a being as a way of seeking—an activity. It is no wonder, then, that the book should be self-reflexive. The soul is apparently to be discovered in our attempt to discover soul.

Aristotle begins by calling psychology an eidesis. The word appears nowhere else in De Anima—indeed, nowhere else in Aristotle. Nor does it occur in any extant text prior to Aristotle. For several centuries after its debut in De Anima, eidesis is rare. Aristotle thus begins with a claim about the precision of knowledge of soul, but this knowledge is designated by a term that is absolutely unique and therefore so precise as to be too precise. It conveys nothing determinate. But perhaps this is too extreme; we can construct a meaning for eidesis on the basis of its etymology and its similarity to other words. Its root is a verb *eido—"to see"—that is not extant in the present tense but in the perfect tense means "to know" in the sense of being in a state of having seen and in the aorist means that one saw. So the noun we are interested in derives from a verb that shows up either when reflecting back on what was done or as some sort of continuing completed state. And it has to do with seeing. The cognitive status of eidesis is clear from its connection to eidos—"idea" or "form" in Plato and "species" in Aristotle. As deriving from the perfect, the least temporal and so least verbal of the tenses, and the aorist, the tense expressing action at a moment, eidesis seems to involve looking but with a certain atemporality. It involves what is taken in at a moment and is thus appropriate to the way in which De Anima presents soul in terms of an isolated slice of awareness without before or after.

Eidesis is formed similarly to a number of other words in Greek. For example, mimesis and poiesis derive from the verbs "to mimic" (or "imitate") and "to do" (or "make"), respectively. Both nouns initially retain a verbal sense, so that mimesis designates the process or act of imitating and poiesis the process or act of making. But then, as is the way with language, their meaning spreads and slides into a noun that is more nounlike; they come to be regularly interchanged with mimema and poiema—"an imitation" and "a thing made"—and so can also stand for the end result of the process for which they stand. If eidesis is understood to have been formed in the same way, then it would initially mean the act of knowing or having seen and subsequently the product of that act, knowledge.

According to the first sentence of De Anima, one eidesis is more beautiful either because it is more precise or because it is both better (or of better things) and more wondrous (or of more wondrous things), and / or it is more honored for the same reasons. And on account of both (what both refers to here is hard to make out), the inquiry (historia) into soul is with good reason placed among the first. (What does first refer to here? Its gender—either masculine or neuter—does not match either eidesis or historia, both of which are feminine.) We are confronted with an unusually complex series of distinctions and a consequent density of ambiguity that does not relent until the end of the first chapter.

Among eideseis, psychology is distinct as either more beautiful or more honored or both. It is either something loved or something respected or both. Its beauty would belong to it in itself; honor depends on being honored. The distinctness of psychology thus has an ambiguous ground; it depends either on what it is as an object or on how it is received, its way. Furthermore, an eidesis is either (A) more beautiful, (B) more honored, or (C) both, if either (1) it is more precise (this seems to have to do with its character as a way of knowing) or (2) either both (a) as an object (i) it is either itself better (as a way of knowing) or (ii) it is concerned with objects that are better (that is, as a way, it is better because of what it is a way to) and (b) either (i) as an object, it is itself more wondrous (that is, as a way) or (ii) it is concerned with what is more wondrous (that is, it is more wondrous as a way because it is concerned with more wondrous objects).

The inquiry into soul is characterized both by a certain way and by a certain sort of object. De Anima reflects this ambiguity in the regressively dyadic structure of its beginning, as the way and the object of inquiry repeatedly fold into each other. It is initially not clear whether the inquiry into soul has any distinctive character apart from the object with which it is concerned. At first, we think it is distinctive in its way, which is characterized by a word, eidesis, that is altogether unique and seems to point to an atemporal kind of knowing. But by the end of the first sentence, eidesis has been replaced by historia, an inquiry that essentially chronicles what happens to happen.6 In addition, historia, like eidesis, has a double sense: it can refer both to the act of inquiring and to the product of the inquiry. The inquiry into soul therefore has a thoroughgoing doubleness. It is precise—there is no mistaking what it is about; on the other hand, what it is about, as well as it itself, is perplexing and inspires wonder. Soul seems to be precisely what must always inspire wonder. Because it is so distinctive—there is nothing else like soul in the world—knowledge of it will be precise; because it is "somehow all beings," knowledge of soul will be absolutely comprehensive.

In the sequel, Aristotle redoubles his account of the doubleness of soul. He introduces two new terms for the knowledge he is seeking. He says that "gnosis [or recognition] of it contributes greatly [or great things] toward all truth and especially toward nature [or the truth of nature]" (402a4–6). Then he says we seek "to contemplate [theoresai] and recognize [gnonai] its nature, ousia, and however many attributes there are concerning it" (402a7–8). He thus announces a double way (recognition and contemplation) of approaching a double object (nature, a principle of growth and so change, and ousia, a principle of stability). He then re-redoubles his account by distinguishing nature and ousia, now taken as one, from attributes or accidents as what attach to something not of necessity or essentially but accidentally. And then within these attributes, now called pathe, Aristotle distinguishes between those proper to soul by itself and those existing in living things on account of soul but nevertheless inseparable from body.

One might say provisionally that for Aristotle there are three theoretical pursuits. Physics deals with nature, or phusis. Metaphysics deals with substance, or ousia. Psychology deals with what unites these two realms—the changing and the permanent. Soul as the principle of this unification reflects within itself the tension between the two aspects of the whole—change and permanence. It is not an accident that personal identity—how a person can remain one and the same even while growing and changing—is such a prominent problem for psychology.

We need to revisit one more time the first sentence of De Anima.

Supposing eidesis to be one of the beautiful and honored things, one more than another either on account of precision or by belonging to either the better or more wondrous, on account of both of these, the inquiry about soul would with good reason be put among the first.


Excerpted from The Soul of the Greeks by MICHAEL DAVIS Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Michael Davis is professor of philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College.

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