The Mirror of the Self: Sexuality, Self-Knowledge, and the Gaze in the Early Roman Empire

The Mirror of the Self: Sexuality, Self-Knowledge, and the Gaze in the Early Roman Empire

by Shadi Bartsch

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People in the ancient world thought of vision as both an ethical tool and a tactile sense, akin to touch. Gazing upon someone—or oneself—was treated as a path to philosophical self-knowledge, but the question of tactility introduced an erotic element as well.  In The Mirror of the Self, Shadi Bartsch asserts that these links among vision, sexuality, and self-knowledge are key to the classical understanding of the self. 

Weaving together literary theory, philosophy, and social history, Bartsch traces this complex notion of self from Plato’s Greece to Seneca’s Rome. She starts by showing how ancient authors envisioned the mirror as both a tool for ethical self-improvement and, paradoxically, a sign of erotic self-indulgence. Her reading of the Phaedrus, for example, demonstrates that the mirroring gaze in Plato, because of its sexual possibilities, could not be adopted by Roman philosophers and their students. Bartsch goes on to examine the Roman treatment of the ethical and sexual gaze, and she traces how self-knowledge, the philosopher’s body, and the performance of virtue all played a role in shaping the Roman understanding of the nature of selfhood. Culminating in a profoundly original reading of Medea, The Mirror of the Self illustrates how Seneca, in his Stoic quest for self-knowledge, embodies the Roman view, marking a new point in human thought about self-perception.

Bartsch leads readers on a journey that unveils divided selves, moral hypocrisy, and lustful Stoics—and offers fresh insights about seminal works. At once sexy and philosophical, The Mirror of the Self will be required reading for classicists, philosophers, and anthropologists alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226377308
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/21/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 312
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Shadi Bartsch is the Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor of Classics and the Program in Gender Studies at the University of Chicago. She has served as the editor of Classical Philology and is the author of several books, including, most recently, Ideology in Cold Blood: A Reading of Lucan’s “Civil War.”

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The Mirror of the Self

Sexuality, Self-Knowledge, and the Gaze in the Early Roman Empire


Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-03835-3

Chapter One

The Mirror of Philosophy

Vision and knowledge have a long and intertwined history. If the act of seeing has been sometimes intimately linked to knowing-as the etymologies behind theory, reflection, speculation, and enlightenment make clear-at other times earthly sight has been criticized for blocking our vision of eternal verities. It was not only Kant or Descartes who thought that what we take for granted about our gaze on the world outside could undermine our ability to comprehend what that world really is; a philosophical sense of the precariousness of such an assumption has long roots in Greco-Roman antiquity, underlying, for example, the allegory of the cave in Plato's Republic, and informing aspects of the philosophical thought of figures as diverse as Aristotle, Seneca, and Augustine. Like Plato, Dante in the Paradiso saw the world as an inferior copy of the heavens, a mere speculum inferius; later, with the advent of perspectivalism in Renaissance painting, the mathematical qualities of linear perspective were deemed pure enough be related to the transcendental qualities of God's own sight. An interesting parallel is provided by modern quantummechanics, in which our observations can never reveal the true nature of a physical object.

Despite the friction between seeing as blindness and seeing as insight, the idea of the gaze turned inward upon the self came to provide a lasting metaphor for the project of self-knowledge. John Locke's so-called observer model of reflection famously appealed to a subject's inner visual perception, which was directed toward his own mental operations as a method for self-knowledge, while René Descartes' notion that the mind inspects its ideas with an unwavering internal gaze provided, as some would claim, the fundamental ground of modern philosophy itself. As Rodolphe Gasché writes, "The philosophy of reflection is generally considered to have begun with Descartes' prima philosophia.... In Descartes the scholastic idea of the reditus [the inward turn] undergoes an epochal transformation, whereby reflection, instead of being merely the medium of metaphysics, becomes its very foundation" (1986, 17).

This visual emphasis is present in ancient explorations of self-knowledge as well, and much of this book will focus on the intersection of vision and philosophy in classical formulations of coming to know the self. Nowhere in our ancient sources, however, do we encounter the idea of "the eye of the mind." There is no version here of Cartesian self-knowledge as the mind mirroring its own processes, or reflecting upon its capacity for reflection. Instead, ancient formulations of the epistemological power of self-regard stress the specular capacity of the actual gaze rather than the mind's eye-that is, its instructive potential when mirrored back upon the looking self. Indeed, the most common invocation of the possibility of self-knowledge thus holds that the mirror itself might help in the search for wisdom, and that the reflected image of the seeker after truth might have something to teach such a would-be philosopher. One might say that the mirror of philosophy had its most common instantiation in antiquity as the mirror in philosophy, and its invocation as a literal tool for use on the path to self-improvement was so common as to span the gamut of genres from sober treatises to impolite epigrams, and the run of authors from Plato to Martial-and beyond.

The distinctive quality of the ancient mirror consisted, of course, in its then rare ability to reflect the viewer to himself, and far more accurately so than other available resources, such as still water or polished stone. What this meant in Greco-Roman thought, rather than in a modern philosophy steeped in the conceptual apparatus of reflexivity, will emerge from this work. And the mirror as cultural object, too, elicits different reactions in different eras. We moderns tend to take mirrors for granted: a cheap one can be bought for a few cents at any drugstore, and they surround us in our lives from the first bathroom stumbles of the morning. The ancient mirror, by contrast, was an object of comparative rarity and considerable expense. It was the subject of optical theorizing, magic beliefs, and most of all, of moralizing discourses that either praised it for its ability to render back an accurate reflection or damned it as a luxury and a tool of vanity. It lay, as we shall see, at the basis of a long tradition in which it appeared now as a means to truth, now as a fount of illusion. Most important for this book, the ancient reception of the mirror provides a way to understand the interrelation of such seemingly disparate discourses in antiquity as the nature of self-knowledge, the visual emphasis of ancient culture, and the interaction of eros and philosophy; the mirror allows us entry into all three topics of this study at once. Accordingly, this chapter approaches classical notions of selfhood by exploring ancient approaches to the mirror, before turning to such objects of study as prescriptive philosophizing, sociohistorical contexts, and the terminology of sophrosyne and conscientia sui.

The uses of the mirror laid out in this chapter will have continued significance throughout this volume. Some of the key terms and ideas introduced here-especially the contrast between the mirror of the community, the erotic mirror, and Plato's mirror-will recur in ways that offer startling insight into the cultural context in which they are produced. As we shall see, the Platonic gesture toward a mirror in which can be seen a divine perspective upon the self is partially recapitulated in the efforts of a Roman Stoic, Seneca the younger, to find ways of reflecting upon the self that might be independent of the judgment of one's fellow man; at the same time, the notion of a "mirror of the self," in all its permutations, beautifully elucidates the particular concerns of the elite of imperial Rome in the first century CE. In every case, the mirror illustrates the importance of the gaze of the subject, and on the subject, for the ethical development of the ancient self. For us too, then, as once for its Greek and Roman viewers, this implement will provide a view onto a larger picture.


In late 158 or early 159 CE an unusual trial took place in the town of Sabratha in Roman North Africa. The defendant was Apuleius of Madaurus, the author of the Metamorphoses and a local philosopher and rhetorician of some prominence. The charge brought against Apuleius was that he was in fact a sorcerer who had put his magic skills to ill use by inducing a wealthy older woman to marry him. Accordingly, the accusers, headed by Apuleius' new stepson, Sicinius Pudens, and a troop of other relatives eager to defend family moneys from the interloper in their midst, summoned up a motley collection of evidence, including Apuleius' manufacture of tooth-powder and his purchase of various species of fish. But the prosecution also lingered on his appearance and modus vivendi: the long locks of hair, the love poems he wrote to young boys, and the discovery, in his house, of a mirror. These last items, they thought, hardly dovetailed with Apuleius' supposed dedication to the life of the mind; on the contrary, they marked him as a man very much lodged in the flesh.

In the end, Apuleius would carry the day, and partly so by denying the lascivious implications of the hair, the poems, and the mirror. As he vigorously asserted in his rhetorical coup of a defense, his hair, far from the alluring coiffure of a fop, could be seen to be a matted and dirty mess. His love poems had a precedent in such eminent philosophers as Plato and Solon, and were less erotically explicit at that. As for the mirror, not only do all of us have an intrinsic affection for our own image, but even Socrates once avidly recommended its use to moral ends:

Is not Socrates the philosopher reported to have enjoined upon his students to contemplate themselves frequently in a mirror [crebro ut semet in speculo contemplarentur], that so those among them who were self-satisfied with their beauty might above all else take care that they did not disfigure the attractiveness of their body by bad character traits, but those who thought they were less good-looking might take pains to conceal their ugliness with the praise of their virtue? To such a degree did the wisest of all men use the mirror for the inculcation of good character [ad disciplinam morum]. (Apol. 15.8-15)

Apuleius, then, met these charges head on by focusing on the ostensibly philosophical use of the mirror for moral self-improvement, and deduced the innocence of his own specular self-indulgence from a practice he ascribed to none other than the venerable Socrates himself. Further evidence of the mirror's utility, he added, could be seen in its scientific use to study the heavens, and even in its substitution for the judging eye of the other: Demosthenes, after all, rehearsed his orations in front of one quasi ante magistrum, as if before a teacher.

Apuleius' self-defense was merely a late manifestation of a distinguished tradition that united the ethicist and the mirror in the exhortation to virtue. Socrates' dictum here, whether apocryphal or not, was quoted centuries earlier in Diogenes Laertius' Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (2.33), and is invoked at the end of the first century CE, also with this attribution, in Plutarch's Advice to Bride and Groom (141d). The later anthologist Stobaeus traces the recommendation to look in a mirror to a presocratic figure, Bias, who was one of the Seven Sages of Greek antiquity. Elsewhere, the idea that looking in a mirror could impose ethical directives on one's behavior could be attributed to cultural authority figures such as the paterfamilias. The first-century CE Roman freedman Phaedrus weaves the familiar elements of the anecdote into a short fable in which two siblings, looking in a mirror, discover a discrepancy in comeliness. The boy, reveling in his good looks, preens in delight, but his homely sister, upset and jealous, runs to their father to tell on her brother: although he's a boy, he's handled something that only belongs to women (rem feminarum)! The wise father hugs them both and tells them to look in the mirror every day: "You" (to the son) "so that you won't ruin your good looks with rotten deeds, but you" (to the daughter), "so that you can overcome that face of yours by your good character" (Phaedrus 3.8.14-16). Phaedrus' introduction of the jealous sister to motivate the involvement of the father again draws attention to, and then dismisses, the negative connotations of such activity for the fable's audience-almost as if Phaedrus anticipated that they, too, might be perturbed by the thought of a good-looking young man admiring his own features in a mirror.

These anecdotes share an understanding of the reflection in the mirror as the motivating force that can appeal to an individual to alter his or her ethical behavior in order to reinforce, or alternatively to mitigate, the judgment of the community on that person's external appearance. This reflection does not bring with it any form of subjective, uniquely self-generated insight, nor does it suggest that outside appearances are negligible in the face of character-only that they can be upheld or overcome. Indeed, our own expression "handsome is as handsome does" reverses the terms of this Greco-Roman polarity: for Socrates and Bias, an attractive face elicits the ethical injunction to uphold that appearance by matching your behavior to it, while "handsome is as handsome does" suggests that one's behavior is the true source of beauty. That this ancient impetus to self-improvement takes its origin from the visible features of the self-inspector, however they may be judged, is not surprising in face-to-face cultures such as Athens and Rome, in which personal appearance could be seen as an index of personal ethics. After all, as many a pithy saying decreed, the face was the mirror of the soul. Cicero reminds the would-be orator of this: "imago animi vultus, indices oculi" (De Or. 3.221; cf. Orat. 60.5). The novelist Achilles Tatius has his hero Clitophon remark that "it does not seem correct to me to say that the mind is entirely invisible: it reveals itself, as if in a mirror, on the face" (Clitophon and Leucippe 6.6.2). For Pliny the Elder, "in man alone is the brow an index of sadness, happiness, mercy, severity." A common expression held that the eyes were the mirror of the soul. Indeed, what you could read on a man's visage could tell you much about his character: "Qualem intus putas esse animum cuius extra imago tam foeda est?" as Seneca would remark of a man whose face was distorted with rage (De ira 2.35.4; cf. Ep. 52.12).

If mirrors could be conceived of as encouraging forms of behavior that lived up to-or escaped the limitations of-the message of the face, another, equally widespread, strand of justification for the use of the mirror suggested that specular self-inspection could put a quick end to forms of akrasia, lapses in self-control; in other words, that the image in the mirror could cut short bad behavior as well as encourage good. Diogenes Laertius claims of Plato that he told drunkards to look in a mirror so that they would abandon this disfiguring habit, and the same idea, now applied to the irascible, occurs in Plutarch's essay on anger, where an interlocutor touts the merits of having a slave with a mirror follow him to catch him in moments of anger: "To see oneself looking so unnatural and all confused is no small step toward the discrediting of this ailment." In a similar vein, Seneca's cure for a chronic bad temper is to catch your distorted face in a mirror, advice he attributes to Q. Sextius, the founder of an eclectic philosophical school at Rome: "As Sextius says, it has helped certain people while angry to have looked in a mirror: such a change in themselves disturbed them; drawn, as it were, to face reality, they did not recognize themselves. And how little of the actual deformity that reflected image in the mirror renders back! If the soul could be shown, if it could shine in any material, it would stun us as we looked-a thing black, diseased, seething, distorted, swollen!" (De ira 2.36.1-2). More generally, Seneca opines that crimes hate sight of themselves ("scelera conspectum sui reformidant" [Q Nat. 1.16.4])-a harbinger of Tacitus' quip about the emperor Nero's distress upon hearing of his own criminal behavior: he was "as ready to commit crimes as he was unaccustomed to hearing about them."

Again, these sayings seem to rely on a set of communal expectations about the relationship between behavior and appearance. In this case, it is the mirror's transformation of the viewer into a judging other-as in Apuleius' claim that Demosthenes orated while substituting a mirror for a teacher-that effects its ethical transformation in the subject. For our hotheads and drunkards who do not like what they see, the eyes of a self-as-audience show the mirror-gazer how he appears to others, so that the mirror-gazer is confronted with an "objective" judgment about his behavior-a judgment on the mirror-image's physiognomic fall from grace based on assumptions shared by the gazer and his community as a whole. This process is furthered when rage and inebriation are ugly enough to create estrangement from the self, a possibility that Ovid (like Seneca) evokes when he warns that an angry woman will scarcely recognize her reflected image. Jean-Pierre Vernant (1991, 142) describes this notion, to which an entire gamut of ancient texts and varying genres make common appeal: "In seeing your face in the mirror you know yourself as others know you, face-to-face, in an exchange of glances. Access to the self is gained through an external projection of that self, through being objectified, as if one were an other."

Accordingly, the mirror provides a tool for the splitting of the viewer into viewing subject and viewed object, judging "I" and judged-to-be-lacking "me." It does so in the weakest of senses, since none of these sources suggests that the momentary dislocation of self-identity leads to any permanent sense of self-spectatorship or self-judgment apart from the immediate resolution to forswear anger or alcohol. But since the figure who judges the mirror-image in disgust has taken on the role of a dispassionate audience, this use of the mirror does, suggestively, reflect upon the idea that a dislocation, or self-splitting, of the ego into judger and judged could have a part to play in formulations of the ethical self. Such a dislocation could take visual or dialogic form; several of the mirror-viewers are urged to keep up a conversation with themselves as they gaze at their likeness, such as the talkative wife in Plutarch's Advice to Bride and Groom (141d), who is encouraged to converse with herself about what she sees ("Nope, you're definitely not a looker. But how to make up for this?"), and so encourage herself to virtuous behavior.


Excerpted from The Mirror of the Self by SHADI BARTSCH Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

1. The Mirror of Philosophy
The Incentive to Virtue
The Index of Vanity
The Mirror of the Soul
2. The Eye of the Lover
Ancient Optics
Eros and the Eye
Ovid's Narcissus
Hostius Quadra
3. Scopic Paradigms at Rome
Under the Imago
The Penetrating Gaze
Senatorial Safeguards
The Philosopher's Body
4. The Self on Display
Seneca's Witness
The Philosopher's Theater
The Metamorphosis of Persona
5. Models of Personhood
The Second-Order Self
Rethinking Reflexivity
Medea's Meditatio

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